Three days after announcing that the U.S. Justice Department will recognize same-sex marriages in all legal matters, even in states that forbid it, Attorney General Eric Holder took a swipe at states that don’t allow felons to vote.
“In many states, felony disenfranchisement laws are still on the books. And the current scope of these policies is not only too significant to ignore — it is also too unjust to tolerate,” Holder told a criminal justice forum at Georgetown University Law Center.
Holder urged lawmakers “to stand together in overturning an unfortunate and outdated status quo.” And he called on the American people “to join us in bringing about the end of misguided policies that unjustly restrict what’s been called the ‘most basic right’ of American citizenship.”
“These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed,” he said.
Holder said state laws that bar felons from voting are “not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive” because they perpetuate the “stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals,” increasing the likelihood that they will commit future crimes.
Such “outdated” laws have a “disparate impact on minority communities,” he said, suggesting that this is, at heart, a civil rights issue.
Of the 5.8 million Americans who cannot vote because of current or previous felony convictions, 2.2 million are black, Holder noted.
“And although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable.”
Holder said that since 1997, a total of 23 states have enacted reforms.
“These are positive developments. But many of these changes are incremental in nature. They stop well short of confronting this problem head-on. And although we can be encouraged by the promising indications we’ve seen, a great deal of work remains to be done. Given what is at stake, the time for incrementalism is clearly over.”
Holder said 11 states continue to restrict voting rights, to varying degrees, even after a person has served his or her prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole. He singled out Florida and Mississippi and Iowa.
“Whenever we tell citizens who have paid their debts and rejoined their communities that they are not entitled to take part in the democratic process, we fall short of the bedrock promise — of equal opportunity and equal justice — that has always served as the foundation of our legal system. So it’s time to renew our commitment — here and now — to the notion that the free exercise of our fundamental rights should never be subject to politics, or geography, or the lingering effects of flawed and unjust policies.
“After all, at its most basic level, this isn’t just about fairness for those who are released from prison. It’s about who we are as a nation. It’s about confronting — with clear eyes, and in frank terms — disparities and divisions that are unworthy of the greatest justice system the world has ever known. It’s about ensuring that we hold accountable those who do wrong — while preserving the values our nation has always held sacred. And it’s about protecting the American people and strengthening our communities — while enabling all of our citizens, no matter who they are or where they’re from, to make their voices heard.”