Restoring Voting Rights for People on Parole

By Jeremy Benjamin posted 07-28-2016 09:11 AM


Restoring Voting Rights for People on Parole

Events of the past weeks have put into stark relief a situation that was already blatant.  Our criminal justice system disproportionately targets and negatively impacts people of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos.  This is true whether that impact manifests in the policing of “broken windows” type offenses or the  incarceration of the approximately 2.3 million individuals currently housed in U.S. jails and prisons, including approximately 52,000 men and women incarcerated in New York State prisons.

The need to confront this intolerable situation is finally entering mainstream political discussions and has rightfully become a major issue in this election cycle.  But here again the ability to participate in this process discriminates on the basis of race. 

Voting is a fundamental right.  It is at the core of our democracy, and a source of national, state, and local pride.  It is also a right currently denied to 6 million Americans, based on felony conviction.  Given the undeniable racial disparity at all levels of our criminal justice system, it is unsurprising that this form of disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts people of color.

The U.S. Supreme Court has found such disenfranchisement laws presumptively Constitutional.  Nevertheless, states have taken it upon themselves to adopt different paths on the issue.  Some, such as Maine and Vermont have refused to disenfranchise individuals based on felony conviction, including during their incarceration. Others, including Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming permanently disenfranchise individuals convicted of a felony. 

New York State occupies a middle ground, disenfranchising individuals who have served their prison term until they have also completed their term of parole.  New York’s punitive and misguided policy, codified as Election Law Section 5-106, affects approximately 36,000 individuals currently on parole.  Nearly half are African American.    

The average duration of parole in New York is three to five years.  During that period, some individuals may be eligible for a Certificate of Good Conduct or Certificate of Relief which would allow them to regain the right to vote.  In practice, however, these mechanisms appear to be underused or unavailable to most.  As a result, a large segment of the population, that is pre-dominantly African American and Latino, is excluded from the electorate.

There is every reason to change this state of affairs.  The knowledge that felony disenfranchisement laws impact such an enormous segment of our population and disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinos should make us rethink the wisdom of linking the right to vote with a criminal sentence.    At minimum, our voting laws should stop punishing individuals who have completed their prison sentence and recognize their right to have say in their government. 

A bill (AB7634; S2023) pending in the New York State legislature would do just that, re-enfranchising tens of thousands of our fellow New Yorkers by restoring voting rights to individuals upon release from prison.  The accompanying Sponsors’ Memo explains that the purpose of the legislation is “to facilitate community reintegration and participation in the civic process.”  The Sponsors note that “[p]reventing releasees from voting, and from exercising a constitutional right and a civic responsibility, is a barrier to full reintegration into society.  It  also continues to punish people who have already served the incarcerative parts of their sentences, and that part of their debt to society.” 

Barriers to successfully re-entry for persons who have served their term of incarceration do not serve the purposes of parole.  Among such barriers are laws that deny the right to participate in the electorate.  A society that prides itself on its democratic character should not tolerate a system that disenfranchises any segment of society, and should find particularly abhorrent a system that clearly results in the disproportionate disenfranchisement of specific communities that already experience systemic marginalization.

The Committee is solely responsible for the contents of this blog.  It does not represent the position of the New York State Bar Association unless or until approved by its Executive Committee or House of Delegates.

The author[s] is solely responsible for this blog submission.  It does not represent the position of the New York State Bar Association or its Committee.