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A Solution to Recidivism: Let Ex-Offenders Vote

August 9, 2011 12:01:13 am

By Mansfield Frazier

According to a recent report by The Florida Parole Commission, “the overall three-year recidivism rate based on all released inmates” was 33..1, while the recidivism rate for released prisoners who were given their civil rights back and were allowed to vote stood at 11 percent.

These findings were not generated by a progressive organization such as The Sentencing Project, the ACLU, or the NAACP, but by a state governmental body utilizing exacting scientific methodologies.

The inescapable conclusion has to be that allowing formerly incarcerated persons to more fully participate in society will result in a reduction of crime and recidivism.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the July 1 report from the Parole Commission backs up other studies from around the country that have shown criminals are less likely to commit new crimes if they are integrated back into society.

He said it proves that the recent decision Governor Rick Scott made to deny automatic restoration of civil rights for those exiting prison was purely political and had nothing to do with public safety.

“It’s all window dressing to support an antiquated system of voter suppression,” Simon said, noting that Florida’s ban on granting rights to felons once they leave prison is in the state constitution and has been in place since right after the Civil War.

Many states — dating back to Reconstruction — devised diabolically clever ways to suppress voting by African Americans, and some states continue the practice under various guises to this very day.

After the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which prevented any state from denying the right to vote to any male citizen on account of his race) was ratified in 1870, African Americans were an absolute majority of the population in Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina, and represented over 40 percent of the population in four other former Confederate states. 

This worried the white establishment in those states.

As the federal government turned a blind eye, southern conservative whites used the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist paramilitary organizations (allied with the southern Democratic Party, which was controlled by racists at the time) to practice intimidation, violence and even assassinations to repress and prevent blacks from exercising their newly-won right to vote.

By 1890, starting with Mississippi, southern Democrats created new constitutions that contained virtually insurmountable provisions to those seeking to register to vote — provisions that effectively disfranchised most African Americans and many poor whites.

They created a variety of barriers, including instituting poll taxes, requiring land ownership, mandatory literacy tests, residency requirements, and stringent new rules that barred those convicted of felonies from voting. 

Law enforcement then set about arresting and convicting as many blacks as possible to permanently take away their franchise … a practice that some say lingers to this very day and partially accounts for the large racial disparities in U.S. prison populations.

Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander, in her brilliant 2010 book “The New Jim Crow”, graphically details how the law was used take away the vote from African Americans by criminalizing them, and how the doors to the Court House were then slammed shut to prevent redress. 

Over the years some states relaxed the rules against felons voting, but in Florida a felon had to apply to the Florida Clemency Board (after a wait of five years) to have their rights restored, and even then few requests were granted.

But Gov. Charlie Crist, before he left office, made good on a promise and relaxed the rules and gave felons their civil rights back immediately after they exited prison, which resulted in the startling reduction in recidivism among those who exercised the right to vote that the Parole Board report found.

However, when Rick Scott was elected governor, one of his first acts was to again take away the right of felons to vote.

The move came in early March and made nearly 60,000 ex-felons again ineligible. Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi said at the time that former prison inmates should have to prove they can go crime-free for at least five years before getting their civil rights restored.

“It’s a ruse … a ruse designed to steal elections by limiting the number of African American who can vote, ” says  Ken Lumpkin, an attorney and former elected official in Cleveland,

It’s not just happening in Florida, adds Lumpkin, but in other states around the country.

“You can’t have it both ways in a sane society,” he says. “We say we want to reduce recidivism in America, but then conservatives are being allowed to put policies in place that work against such reductions … and actually have the effect of increasing crime. This is no way to run a democracy.” 

Mansfield Frazier, a regular blogger for The Crime Report, is a native Clevelander whose work can be seen weekly on CoolCleveland.com, The Cleveland Leader and The Cleveland Free Press. He also contributes to The Daily Beast. Frazier is the co-publisher of Reentry Advocate, a magazine that goes into prisons nationwide. He welcomes reader comments.

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