Felony disenfranchisement has become a hot topic as election day looms, and rightfully so given the significant impact that conviction-based loss of voting rights has on the makeup of the electorate and the slim margins by which many national elections are decided. In the perennial swing state of Florida, for example, over 10 percent of the entire adult population is barred from voting for life because of a felony conviction. Within that group lies an astounding 21.3 percent of the state’s African-American population.
Those numbers come from a new Sentencing Project report, 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, which attempts to determine just how many individuals are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction in each state, and how those numbers have changed over time. It estimates that 6.1 million individuals are ineligible to vote nationwide because of a felony conviction, and that 1 in 13 African-Americans are barred from the polls due to a conviction.
Florida leads the nation in felony disenfranchisement, with Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee close behind. Kentucky and Virginia (another swing state) disenfranchise the largest share of their African-American population, at 26.2 percent and 21.9 percent, respectively, with Florida close behind at 21.3 percent. The high level of disenfranchisement in these states is largely due to the fact that all but one (Tennessee) strip individuals convicted of felonies of their voting rights for life absent discretionary executive action.
Even in states that restore the right to vote automatically, many convicted people assume they cannot vote and therefore do not register.
The laws on felony disenfranchisement differ widely from state to state. Our 50-state chart on the “Loss and Restoration of Civil Rights and Firearm Privileges” and our state-by-state profiles of restoration of rights provisions describe the law and policy on felony disenfranchisement in each state, as well as the mechanisms by which convicted individuals are restored to the franchise.
Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued new guidance asserting that housing policies that exclude people with criminal records may violate the non-discrimination provisions of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) if they fail to consider the nature, severity, and recency of criminal conduct and if they are not narrowly tailored to protect residents or property. The Justice Department has taken the first step toward judicial enforcement of this guidance.
On October 18 the Department’s Civil Rights Division filed a Statement of Interest in Fortune Society v. Sandcastle Towers Housing Development, a federal civil rights suit brought in the Eastern District of New York against a Brooklyn provider of low-income housing, claiming that it has a blanket policy of refusing to rent to individuals convicted of any non-traffic crime. The Statement urges the court to decide the case based on the legal framework set forth in the HUD guidance, which employs a three-step analysis to determine whether criminal history-based housing exclusion policies amount to illegal racial discrimination prohibited by the FHA.
We reprint the Department’s press release below:
The Illinois legislature has been generally progressive in enacting measures to help people with a criminal record avoid being stigmatized for life. In 2003, as a state senator, President Obama sponsored one of the earliest of these measures, authorizing courts to grant certificates relieving collateral consequences. In 2011, however, Illinois took several steps backwards when it enacted legislation automatically barring some criminal record holders from ever working in a variety of licensed health care fields. The law has since become the subject of litigation and further legislation that leaves many would-be medical licensees to face an uncertain future.
What follows is a description of the law’s enactment, subsequent court challenges, and potential legislative fixes.
The Marshall Project has published an important new article by Maurice Chammah on legal challenges to restrictions on where registered sex offenders can work, live, and visit. See “Making the Case Against Banishing Sex Offenders: Legislators won’t touch the subject, but courts are proving more sympathetic.” Chammah writes that activists, finding lawmakers unreceptive to any measure perceived to benefit sex offenders, “have taken the route favored by other politically unpopular groups and turned to the legal system, where they are more likely to encounter judges insulated from electoral concerns.”
Their legal claims vary, but in numerous cases, reformers have argued that these restrictions associated with registration add up to a sort of second sentence, and that they are defined in a vague way that makes them difficult to abide by. In some cases, the plaintiffs have argued that individual towns have enacted restrictions above and beyond what states allow them to impose.
A federal judge in San Francisco has dismissed a constitutional challenge to the recently enacted International Megan’s Law, which requires specially-marked passports for registered sex offenders whose offenses involved child victims, and authorizes notification to foreign governments when they travel. The so-called “Scarlet Letter” law is specifically aimed at stopping child sex trafficking and sex tourism, and this purpose was evidently enough to justify it even though it has a far broader effect.
In February we posted about regulations proposed by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to implement criminal history screening requirements for child care workers under recent changes to the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014. The CCRC joined a coalition of organizations led by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) in calling upon HHS to reconsider the proposed regulations. In a formal comment submitted to HHS, the coalition argued that the regulations contained screening standards that were more exclusionary than the Act requires, and that they would have a disparate impact on women, African Americans, and Latinos.
HHS has now issued the final version of those regulations. Although the final rules are far from perfect, they do address a number of the concerns raised by the coalition. For example, they omit language that encouraged states to require self-disclosure of criminal history, provide greater protection from inaccurate criminal record reporting, and urge states adhere to the standards laid out in the EEOC guidance by providing individualized assessments for disqualifying offenses that are added by the states but not required by the federal law.
Unfortunately, HHS chose not to back down on one of the most troubling provisions of the proposed regulations: criminal history screening of anyone age 18 or older residing in a license-exempt home that provides child care services. Screening of those individuals is not required by the Act itself. As the coalition’s comments explained, the requirement will almost certainly have a disproportionately adverse impact on providers of color and their families:
Earlier this month eight judges of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit blocked enforcement of a federal gun control law in two cases involving Pennsylvanians convicted of non-violent misdemeanors many years ago, invoking the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. The appeals court affirmed lower court decisions upholding the constitutional right of Daniel Binderup and Julio Suarez to possess firearms despite the fact that they are barred by federal statute from doing so. Seven other judges of the appeals court thought the Second Amendment should never be applied on a case-by-case basis to convicted individuals, and proposed that the federal statutory bar should determine the constitutional issue. The 174-page appellate decision in Binderup v. Holder has been widely reported but only in the most general terms, and not always entirely accurately.
Other as-applied Second Amendment challenges to firearms dispossession statutes are percolating through the courts. For example, Hamilton v. Palozzi will be argued next month in the Fourth Circuit, offering another opportunity for a court to hold that people convicted of non-violent crimes should not lose their firearms rights, there under a state dispossession statute rather than a federal one. Because the constitutional issues may shortly be before the Supreme Court for resolution, it seemed worth taking a closer look at the Binderup holding.
Recently, a woman standing outside of a Berkeley grocery store asked if I wanted to register to vote. I asked her, “Can I vote if I’m on probation?” She looked at me with horror, gripped her clipboard, and physically recoiled from me and the cantaloupe I was holding. Once she regained some composure, she sincerely, confidently, and erroneously informed me that California’s laws prohibit voting while on probation.
That encounter inspired me to draft these goals for all of the voter registration advocates (including me!) working the sidewalks this election season:
1: Practice not physically recoiling in horror from people we encounter in life.
2: Learn the voting laws in our jurisdictions to avoid disenfranchisement through disinformation.
Each state has its own laws about voting following a felony conviction. Two states never disenfranchise voters following conviction. (Hey, Maine! Hey, Vermont!) Some states permanently terminate the voting rights of outrageous numbers of its citizens: Florida’s draconian voting laws disenfranchise 10% of its total population. In 2000, Florida disenfranchised 600,000 citizens with felony convictions. That same year, its presidential race was decided by 537 votes.
On September 14, the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY), the nation’s largest comprehensive university system, voted to ban the box in its admissions process. It is the first university system in the country to reverse its decision to engage in criminal history screening and remove the question from its admissions application.
The resolution laying out the policy change references the advocacy of the Education From the Inside Out (EIO) Coalition, including a 2015 case study of SUNY conducted by the Center for Community Alternatives, “Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition.” That study found that about two-thirds of the nearly 3,000 SUNY applicants who disclose a felony conviction each year do not complete the application process (compared to only 21 percent of the overall pool of applicants) and thus are never considered for admission. It concluded that this is the result of the daunting – and sometimes impossible – supplemental process triggered by that disclosure as well as the stigmatizing nature of the inquiry itself.
In the wake of the Brock Turner case, a new controversy was ignited in Massachusetts last month when 18-year-old David Becker, a white college-bound athlete, received two years’ probation after pleading guilty to indecent assault of an unconscious woman at a house party. As in the Turner case, many are outraged by a penalty they regard as too lenient and the result of white privilege. However, any perceived injustice in the Becker case may be less about an abuse of judicial discretion than about the limited ability of judges to mitigate collateral consequences.
Critics of the decision may be even more concerned to learn that David Becker was not actually convicted of a crime. Instead, District Court Judge Thomas Estes accepted Becker’s guilty plea and ordered a “continuance without a finding” (known as a CWOF) for two years while Becker serves a term of probation. If Becker completes the conditions of probation successfully, the charges against him will be dismissed and the record will be eligible for sealing.
The fact that Becker was not convicted is significant because it allows him to avoid both registering as a sex offender and the numerous collateral consequences that would come with having a criminal record.