Friday, November 14, 2008

They Didn't Get to Vote Nov. 4

One of the least recognized penalties for committing any kind of felony in America is loss of the right to vote. And the biggest losers of that most basic aspect of citizenship are blacks and Latinos, most of them convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

The effect is unblushingly racist: the disproportionate enforcement of our failed drug laws and bans on voting by felons weakens the political power of minority communities. 

And that's no accident, says Ira Glasser, president of the Drug Policy Alliance and former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Glasser, who woke me up to this issue when I heard him speak a couple of years ago, believes this is a deliberate policy to deprive minorities of power, an extension of the Jim Crow laws we thought we had left behind.

Here's the picture:
  • Although African Americans make up about 12% of the U.S. population and 13% of drug users, 38% of those arrested for drug offenses and 59% of those convicted are black.
  • Almost all states and the District of Columbia strip felony prisoners of their right to vote. Only 2 states--Maine & Vermont--allow voting by felony prisoners.
  • 35 states prohibit voting while felons are on parole
  • 30 states prohibit voting by felons on probation
  • 2 states--Kentucky & Virginia--are completely non-forgiving. Even after you've done your time, you never again can vote.
  • A few other states delay restoration of voting rights for certain offenses for as long as 5 years.
An estimated 5.3 million Americans (1 in 40 adults) have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction.

But of those people, 1.4 million are African-American men--13% of the total population of black men, or more than 1 in 10.

As bad as that is, here's a shocking look forward, according to the Sentencing Project:

If the current unfair enforcement of drug laws continues, three in 10 of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. 

Not only is this situation racist, but it's costing us money we can ill afford. 

Here we are trying to find money to support education and health care and other essential services as our economy goes into the tank, and we're still wasting billions of dollars nationally keeping people in prison for using the short list of drugs we call illegal. Not so for those who abuse prescription drugs or alcohol, as long as they don't drive or engage in other behavior that hurts other people. Shouldn't that be the standard for all drugs? What makes marijuana or cocaine or heroin so different, other than that they are illegal and therefore the cause of so much crime, here and abroad?

Alternatives to incarceration, community-based drug treatment--in short, treating drug use as a health problem--would be far less expensive, not to mention humane than locking people up and in the process destroying their families and communities.

This picture looks even worse when you consider that in some states, the prison population is counted for representation in the communities where the prisons are located---mostly rural areas--rather than the home towns of the prisoners. In some communities, this results in giving the votes of a small number of generally white voters more weight than those of others. That's a clear violation of one person, one vote.

It's a situation crying out for change. 

Let's hope the new Obama Administration finds the time to dial down the drug war and put the drug problem in a new framework that delivers a healthier, more just America.

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