RALLY FOCUSES ON FELON VOTING RIGHTS

The Associated Press 
4/18/2004, 12:31 p.m. CT 
 

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- Prison reform activists from several states were among about 100 people at a Capitol rally on voting rights for convicted felons.

About 212,000 prisoners, ex-felons and parolees in Alabama have lost their vote. More than 111,000 of them are black, which represents 14 percent of the state's voting-age black population, according to a 2000 study by the Sentencing Project, part of the Right to Vote Campaign.

At Saturday's rally, State Sen. Quinton Ross and Rep. Alvin Holmes, both Montgomery Democrats, said laws that prohibit convicted felons from regaining voting rights until they seek approval from the state is unfair to those who have completed terms behind bars.

"We need to have massive reforms and we need to make sure there is justice within that system," Ross said.

Some rally participants waved signs that read: "Liberate, Not incarcerate" and "Treatment, Not Prison â€" Stop The War On Drugs."

Holmes called for reforms that would allow felons who serve their terms to vote once they complete state requirements linked to their release.

He said that would extend to monetary restitution for crime victims. He said those who enter into a plan to make restitution "in good faith" should be allowed to vote even though they owe large amounts of money.

Holmes also criticized Alabama's Habitual Offender Act which carries stiff prison sentences for repeat offenders. Some are sentenced to life in prison for crimes that generally would carry less time on first offenses.

The rally was part of the Family Members of Inmates convention in Montgomery. The Alabama group was founded by Wetumpka radio-talk show host Roberta Franklin.

Last year, protests from this group helped lead to the passage of state Rep. Yvonne Kennedy's bill, which allows most Alabama felons to apply for approval from the parole board to vote. It was considered major progress because Gov. Bob Riley vetoed a similar bill earlier in 2003, spurring a backlash from black lawmakers against some of Riley's proposals.

In the seven months since Alabama's law changed, about 800 felons â€" a fraction of the disenfranchised â€" have gotten their voting rights restored, said David Sadler, who coordinates voter registrations for the Montgomery-based Alabama Restore the Vote Coalition.

Alabama still remains among 14 states that do not automatically restore voting rights after offenders serve their time. Felons must have paid restitution, completed probation and parole to vote. They also must submit an application to vote to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has 45 days to respond. And people convicted of murder and certain sex crimes can never have their vote restored.

"There are still hurdles to cross," said Paul Robinson, director of the Mobile-based One For Life, a part of the Alabama Restore Your Vote Coalition.

Montgomery County Sheriff D.T. Marshall said victims rights should also be considered before voting rights are restored.

"There are two sides to this thing," Marshall said Saturday. "It's not only a matter of those seeking to have their voting rights restored, it also involves consideration for victims who feel some are pardoned too soon."

Michael Blain, who arrived from New York for the rally, said he recently worked to change drug laws in Maryland, where a bill has passed allowing judges to send certain drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. Once they're completed treatment, their voting rights are restored.

"We must have this because if you have no vote, you have no power to change the policies that are afflicting your community," said Blain, policy director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance.


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