Voting for Change

Felons fight to regain their democratic rights

They walk out of prisons and back into our lives by the thousands each year. But as released felons come home, those returns are laced with overpowering contradictions.

Such as the fact that people who've done their time are expected to swan-dive back into life as upstanding citizens, only to find the pond half-empty. They are steadily rejected for jobs and barred from obtaining a host of professional licenses, meaning they can't, for example, become a CPA or a cosmetologist. Adding to the insult, felons are often denied the fundamental American right to cast their votes at the ballot box.

But in Tucson and around the country, advocates for former inmates—from the American Friends Service Committee to the American Civil Liberties Union—are ramping up a counter-offensive.

Joining them is Michele Convie, who long ago served time on drug charges, and faced voting hurdles for years afterward. She's now the program coordinator for the Women's Re-Entry Network, which helps newly released inmates regain their footing.

Former inmates with a single felony on their records can have their voting rights automatically restored, once they've served their time and paid all fines, fees and restitution. But that's hardly common knowledge, says Convie, who often addresses meetings of ex-prisoners. "I'll ask around the room how many of them know they can restore their right to vote," she says, "and not a single hand goes up."

That may be about to change. In November, Convie will travel to Los Angeles for a gathering of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People's Movement. At that meeting, participants will hash out details for a nationwide drive to restore voting rights to former inmates, in anticipation of the 2012 elections. Their target includes the approximately 175,000 Arizonans who lack voting rights after leaving prison.

The challenge, she says, is dispelling the many myths about voting rights—or the lack thereof. "When I got out of prison, nobody actually told me that it was illegal to vote," she says. "But I had already been told when I was still in (prison), just by word of mouth, that if you had been convicted of a felony, you don't have civil rights. I've even met people with misdemeanors who say, 'I can't vote—I've been to jail.'"

Former inmates could be forgiven their confusion, considering that such misinformation is routinely dispensed by election officials themselves. According to a study published in 2008 by the ACLU of Arizona, more than half of county officials surveyed gave wrong answers to basic questions about felons' voting rights. More than half of those officials weren't even aware that people with more than one felony could apply to have their voting rights restored. Some counties peruse those applications in closed-door meetings that even the applicants themselves aren't allowed to attend. Not surprisingly, applicants are often given fluctuating reasons for being denied—if they're lucky enough to get any reason at all.

In most counties, the restoration of civil rights is generally decided by the sentencing or discharging judges. And again, there was a large variance between judges and their views, with outstanding restitution or fines—often running into the tens of thousands of dollars—as primary sticking points.

Among the counties, Pima was far more generous than some; out of 119 applications for civil-rights restoration here between May 2006 and June 2007, 112 were approved. That 94 percent approval rate compares to only 79 percent of applicants being approved in Maricopa County. Our metropolitan neighbor to the north was also said to have a cumbersome, overly complex application process.

Statewide, the system is mostly a mess. "We found that there was a great deal of inconsistency," says Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona. "There was no streamlined process for rights-restoration, and it varied from county to county."

It also differed vastly from judge to judge. "We saw cases," she says, "where people were not getting their rights restored because they owed 80 cents."

Still, in Pima County, "people were getting their rights restored at much higher rates, because the judges were actually complying with the law. The law gives judges a tremendous amount of discretion, and (in Pima), it's an open-door process."

Former felons are helped by a rights-restoration program run by UA law professor Andy Silverman, local attorney Jonathan Rothschild and a handful of third-year law students. Through ongoing legal help and free clinics, the program assists some 70 people each year in getting their civil rights restored and convictions set aside.

But things can get tricky, particularly when more than one felony is involved. That situation is routine in narcotics cases where a drug-paraphernalia charge is also tacked on, says Silverman. "Those are common crimes that go together. Those would be two felonies, and (former inmates) would have to apply to a court to have their rights restored."

And that can be a crapshoot. Still, he says that many judges see restoration of voting rights as a fundamental issue, and are loathe to shut off people from the democratic process just because they owe the court money. "Obviously, every judge looks at it differently. But judges are more sympathetic to restoration of (voting) rights than, for instance, setting aside a conviction—except for gun rights. Gun rights are harder to get restored, and judges are more restrictive about it."

Thanks to the UA program run by Silverman and Rothschild, Convie was finally able to get her civil rights restored. Now she's setting her sights on inmates at the Pima County Jail who may be serving time for misdemeanors—and thus still retain their civil rights—or those who are simply awaiting trial. She's also taking that mission on the road, with a voter-registration drive spearheaded by the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People's Movement.

"Our voter drive won't just be going to the jails," she says. "We're also going to visit Section 8 housing and halfway houses, because that's where we'll find the people who are formerly incarcerated, as well as their families—people who are really hungry for information and have (received) really bad information in the past."

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