Democracy Behind Bars

Human Rights

In his new book, "Conned: How Millions of Americans Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House," award-winning journalist Sasha Abramsky takes us on a journey across the nation, documenting through personal interviews of people in prison, former prisoners, state legislators and advocates how felon disfranchisement laws fundamentally undermine America's democratic ideals.

Today, nearly 5 million Americans are disfranchised from the right to vote either because they are in prison, on parole or probation, or because they live in a state that extends disfranchisement beyond the end of one's sentence. Racial, ethnic and economic disparities in the criminal justice system, and the "war on drugs" have resulted in the most severe impact hitting communities of color. Where African-Americans comprise only 12.2 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, they make up 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 59 percent of those convicted of drug offenses, causing critics to call the war on drugs the "New Jim Crow." Nationally, an estimated 13 percent of African-American men are unable to vote because of a felony conviction. That's seven times the national average.

The United States is the only "democracy" in which people who have served their sentences can still lose their right to vote. As Jamaica S., a 25-year-old on probation in Tennessee who lost her right to vote shared in "Conned," "It seems when you're convicted of a felony, the scarlet letter is there. You take it everywhere with you."

We met up with Sasha to learn more about his time writing "Conned," the impact of disfranchisement and the reform measures being fought at the state level to repair our broken democracy.

Cole Krawitz: Sasha, tell us how you started to cover the impact of disfranchisement and voter restoration on the nation.

Sasha Abramsky: I had been writing about criminal justice issues for years, and was particularly fascinated with the broader political and economic impact of a series of policy choices made from the 1970s to the present day that had the effect of massively expanding the country's criminal justice system. The numbers were extraordinary: America had gone from having fewer than half a million people in jail and prison in the early 1970s to having over two million people behind bars by the turn of the century. I knew that, as the war on drugs, in particular, played out, it was having a huge effect on labor markets, on family structure, on community viability in poor neighborhoods; quite simply, in many instances so many people were being hauled off to jail and prison that entire communities were being dislocated. I also knew that ex-prisoners faced an array of post-sentence penalties -- from restrictions on what kinds of jobs they could get through to denial of welfare benefits, student loans and public housing if their felony convictions were drug-related. I had also heard that there were limits placed on their voting rights.

The day after the 2000 presidential election, I posted a story on Mother Jones online about a "purge" of suspected felons and about the impact it had clearly had on the Gore-Bush outcome. From there, I was hooked. The topic was, quite simply, too juicy to ignore.

CK: I was fascinated by your choice to use Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" to help narrate "Conned." Why de Tocqueville?

SA: De Tocqueville has always fascinated me. He's a European aristocrat who comes over to America in the 1830s to study the country's prison system; and he ends up spending nine months touring the country, absolutely intrigued by its democratic possibilities and by the expanding institutions of democracy and culture of democracy that he sees all around. In some instances he romanticizes the country -- and he certainly underestimates the central role of slavery. But his enthusiasm for the best aspects of American life is infectious.

Like de Tocqueville, I also grew up in Europe; in London. And I, too, have found myself, as an adult, fascinated by America's culture and politics.

In deciding to travel around the country for several months exploring what I saw as a major failing of America's democratic institutions -- its failure to protect the vote for millions of Americans caught up in a seemingly ever-expanding penal system -- I wanted a literary companion who could be used to compare the country's democratic potential with the somewhat more tawdry realities I was encountering. De Tocqueville struck me as the perfect companion. Over four months, his writings continually provided insight and prescient observations. I hope that, in using de Tocqueville in this way, my book becomes something more than a narrow criminal justice book, becoming instead a commentary on American democracy, its successes and its shortfalls.

CK: One of the myths that I think "Conned" strongly helps dispel is the idea that people who have been disfranchised don't want to vote. Why do some legislators continue to disregard how, when people are actually asked if they want to vote, they overwhelming say yes, and in states where law allows and advocates have helped let people know about their rights, that people do vote?

SA: There's a pervasive stereotype out there that criminals, as a group, have absolutely no political interests or desire to participate in any communal goings-on. Now, in reality there is no such thing as a single, monolithic "criminal type." Some people convicted of crimes are indeed utterly sociopathic -- hardened, violent and predatory and, yes, it may well be true that these individuals (a) wouldn't want to vote, and that (b) we as a society are safer with them behind bars and better off not participating politically. But you can't craft umbrella disenfranchisement legislation for all felons based on the behaviors and attitudes of a minority of felons.

The large majority of people who get caught up in the criminal justice system do not fit the sociopathic profile: In fact, over one million jail and prison inmates were sentenced after committing nonviolent offenses. They commit crimes, many of them drug-related or generated by dire poverty, they serve their time, and at the end of their sentence, they want to get on with their lives. Now, some of these men and women are apolitical -- just like millions of their nonfelon counterparts -- and don't see the importance of voting. Many of them, however, desperately want to vote and feel shamed and, in a sense, emasculated by being unable to vote.

It was this burning desire to vote, expressed to me in numerous interviews I conducted around the country, that most surprised me. Before starting my reporting, to a degree I'd bought into the stereotype: I'd assumed I was covering a story with a vast philosophical implication, one that went to the heart of theories of democracy and universal suffrage, but with only limited practical impact, precisely because I'd assumed most felons wouldn't vote even if they could.

In a sense, I thought, going in, that Florida 2000, when the nonvotes of felons clearly mattered, was an aberration rather than something that spoke to a larger issue. Instead, I found people in state after state, many in states with closely divided electorates, who were absolutely devastated by not being allowed to vote. There were people like Jamaica S., who had been convicted of a low-end felony, had been put on probation instead of being sent to prison, but had lost her voting rights; there was a 30-something-year-old man who owned a small taxi fleet, who couldn't vote because of a drug crime from when he was a teenager; there was a furniture store employee in rural Virginia who'd been trying for the better part of a decade, without success, to get back his voting rights after being convicted of a drug crime.

To me, that became the central focus of my book: the fact that so many people who so want to participate in the political process are being told by their own government officials that they cannot and should not vote.

CK: Public opinion data shows strong support for reform -- 80 percent of the public supports restoration of voting rights for ex-felons who have completed their sentences, and 64 percent and 62 percent respectively support the right of probationers and parolees to vote. Has this impacted or translated into legislative action?

SA: Over the past several years, many states have enacted limited reforms. In Maryland, for example, permanent disenfranchisement was replaced by a waiting period - which itself is now being challenged by Democratic legislatures. In Alabama, at least in theory, the process by which felons can apply to regain their vote has been simplified, though only to a limited degree. New Mexico has abandoned permanent disenfranchisement, as have several other states since 2000. Last year, Iowa governor Tom Vilsack signed an executive order granting clemency regarding voting rights to tens of thousands of ex-felons.

Yet, a core number of holdout states remain, and unfortunately, these are the states with the largest concentration of disenfranchised citizens: Florida, Virginia, Alabama still to a large extent has an extremely restricted franchise, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky. And several other states place extreme, though not permanent, restrictions on the voting rights of felons.

CK: You start your trip not in Florida or New York, but in Seattle, Wash., highlighting how people's inability to fully pay off court fees -- known as Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) -- were blocking them from the ability to vote. What do you think the impact will be of the recent suit brought forward and won by the ACLU in Washington state overturning this requirement?

SA: I started in Washington state because I wanted this to be a book national in its scope, and I also wanted my readers to really get a sense that this problem was not something that could be located solely in the Old South. Washington, in many ways, is a very liberal state, and thus the scale of disenfranchisement present there was, to me, both surprising and also deeply disturbing. I got a sense that these really were invisible people. In Washington, I interviewed numerous ex-prisoners who were living law-abiding lives in the community, but they were unable to pay off all the fines and court costs levied in responses to criminal actions that, in some instances, had occurred decades earlier. As a result, they were not allowed to vote.

The recent lawsuit overturned this state of affairs. The courts ruled that people couldn't be deprived of their voting rights simply because they were too poor to pay off all their fines and court fees. It's an important ruling, because it significantly broadens the franchise, by many tens of thousands of people - and, remember, this is in a state in which the governor was elected by only a couple hundred votes last time around. The big question, though, and it's one that I address in my book in some detail, is whether theoretical reenfranchisement will translate into a real expansion of the franchise. For this to happen, there's going to have to be a pretty intense public education campaign to make people aware of the new state of affairs surrounding voting rights.

CK: Your book documents how the lack of dissemination of correct information about the law -- by the Department of Corrections or the Board of Elections -- continues to disfranchise thousands. This has been reconfirmed by numerous studies, including a recent survey by Brennan Center for Justice, Legal Action Center and Demos of 63 county boards of elections in New York. How were advocates and organizers on the ground tackling this all too common problem of when policy doesn't get implemented effectively?

SA: It's a huge problem. In state after state, researchers have found, and my reporting confirmed, that many election officials simply do not know the state laws surrounding felons' voting rights. Moreover, other public officials who deal directly with prisoners and ex-prisoners also don't know the law. This goes for probation and parole officials as well as prison employees.

In my book, I tell the story of a group of elderly ladies in Utah who greet prisoners as they come out of prison and try to break through their misapprehensions about voting rights by getting them to register to vote the minute they regain their freedom. I also write about lawyers and community activists in various states who are working to educate public officials as well as ex-prisoners about voting laws in their states.

It's an extremely hard issue to get a handle on, but it's vital if we, as a country, are going to meaningfully seek to restore the principle of universal adult suffrage.

CK: In each state, "Conned" demonstrates the link between racism and voting rights restrictions, as well as many legislators' unwillingness to discuss the issue of race and reenfranchisement -- how has this impacted the work that people are trying to do on the state level?

SA: While the concept of felon disenfranchisement goes back to early-modern Europe, and while colonial-era America imposed restrictions on felons' political participation, it's also undeniable that the South's political leadership in the post-civil war period redefined felony codes with the specific intent of disenfranchising as many African-Americans as possible.

No politician today will go on the record and defend disenfranchisement by embracing the notion that it falls most heavily on African-Americans. In fact, politicians generally swear blind their support for disenfranchisement is entirely race-neutral, and consciously, that might well be the case. But, the impact is clearly not race-neutral. Moreover, I can't conceive of a situation in which one quarter of white voters were removed from the voter rolls that wouldn't immediately lead to dramatic political action to overturn the injustice.

Does it impact how people organize against these laws at the state level? The answer has to be "yes." By default, this is a civil rights issue. Felon disenfranchisement in an era of mass incarceration clearly has done more to undo the gains of the 1965 Voting Rights Act than any other single event. Lawsuits have been filed on 14th and 15th Amendment grounds -- though these lawsuits have generally had very limited results. And, increasingly, black caucuses in state legislatures have embraced the cause of reenfranchisement.

CK: People of color rightfully critique a primarily white political and activist establishment, including many progressives and liberals, as being all too comfortable with the high incarceration rates of people of color in this country, and the resulting disfranchisement from housing, jobs and voting that has disproportionately harmed communities of color. How do you think "Conned" might help to change this so that the systemic problems with, and those created by, our criminal justice system are better understood?

SA: "Conned" demonstrates how "criminal justice" cannot be understood as a hermetically sealed issue. Instead, the policies and practices that have so dramatically enlarged the number of people convicted of felonies in America, and the number of people sentenced to spend parts of their lives behind bars, need to be understood as part of a larger societal transformation.

In an era of mass incarceration, progressives need to be looking for linkages, seeking to explore ways in which society responds to poverty and to social disorder. At the moment, our society has made a series of choices that means we devote an increasing number of dollars to funding punishment-based institutions. At the same time, we dramatically underfund community drug rehabilitation programs, community mental health services, job training programs and the like. Not surprisingly, given these priorities, prisons have come to be first-tier response mechanisms for a host of deep-rooted social problems.

Now, obviously, most everyone wants to live in a peaceful society, one not driven by crime and violence. The question is how best to achieve that. I'd hope that "Conned" opens up the debate here: Does simply locking up ever larger numbers of people best serve this goal? Does an over-reliance on incarceration come with a host of other, largely hidden costs? In the arena of voting rights, my book explores these costs. It looks at how society as a whole is now being impacted by out-of-whack sentencing policies and by the overlap of criminal justice institutions with the voting rights of citizens.

I'd hope that readers of my book come away with a better understanding of the ways in which current incarceration policies produce a host of dysfunctional societal outcomes.

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