Solutions: The Sentencing Project

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6.1 million.

6.1 million is the number of Americans who cannot vote because of felony disenfranchisement. Felony disenfranchisement is when a person’s right to vote is taken away from them due to a current or prior felony conviction. 

A felony itself is defined as “a crime that is punishable by more than a year in prison.” According to the Atkins and Markoff law firm’s website, felony offenses include drug abuse violations, property crimes, driving under the influence, assault, disorderly conduct, a violation of liquor laws, violent crime, public drunkenness, aggravated assault, burglary, vandalism, fraud, weapons violations, and more. 

Kara Gotsch is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for The Sentencing Project. The Sentencing Project is a criminal justice research and advocacy organization located in Washington, D.C. It is focused on prison rights and reforms and is involved in a number of pressing topics such as juvenile justice, racial disparity and felony disenfranchisement

Gotsch says there are many misconceptions about people who have been arrested. “People who are in jail generally have the right to vote because most of those people are being held pretrial, which means they haven’t been convicted of anything, or they’re serving time for a misdemeanor, and in most places you can still vote if you are incarcerated because of a misdemeanor,” Gotsch said. “The problem is our jail system in this country doesn’t not prioritize access to the ballot box, so many people are by default disenfranchised because they are in jail even though they have the right to vote.” 

While The Sentencing Project is concerned with educating the general public about their calls for reforms, they are specifically focused on reaching lawmakers, as well as like-minded advocates who work in the civil rights community. Their goal is to educate them on the consequences and overall impact of mass incarceration. Since The Sentencing Project has been around for 30 years, they have seen their audience expand from lawmakers all the way to the youth voters and students. 

Gotsch says it is crucial “to use research and evidence that we have gathered for decades on what prevents crime.” Lawmakers need to prioritize facts and information to guide recommendations on policy change. They need to look at solid information on what causes crime and what deters crime, particularly in the sphere of criminal justice policy. Instead of just incarcerating people for crimes, Gotsch believes it is necessary to learn why these crimes are being committed and find ways to help the people who are committing the crimes, instead of just incarcerating them and forgetting about them. 

Returning to those 6.1 million people. Felony disenfranchisement, while not necessarily a hot topic, has a significant impact on these millions of people. Notably, “77% of disenfranchised voters are people living in communities and not behind bars,” according to The Sentencing Project. Gotsch believes that preventing these individuals from voting takes away their civic voice. They cannot vote in presidential races, state or local elections. They cannot even vote in school board races to select who is going to run their town and improve the schools for their children. 

There are some efforts underway to change that status of felon disenfranchisement, and even to help those who are in jail who are not disenfranchised but have no access to the polls. 

Washington, D.C., where The Sentencing Project is located, allows volunteers working with the organization to go into jails and hand out request for absentee ballots and even voter registration forms. The volunteers then go back into the jails and hand deliver the ballots to those incarcerated. Unfortunately, it is very uncommon, but it is an example of a step in the right direction. 

According to The Sentencing Project’s Fall 2019 Newsletter, it has worked with Washington, D.C. Councilmember Robert White and the Commission on Reentry and Returning Citizen Affairs to introduce the Restore the Vote Amendment – legislation that would expand voting rights to incarcerated District residents who have a felony conviction. The newsletter also states that this amendment is supported by seven other states: Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Virginia. 

The 2018 Annual Newsletter states that “1.4 million previously barred citizens were eligible to vote by the 2018 midterm elections due to changes in state felony disenfranchisement laws, according to the article Expanding the Vote: Two Decades of Felony Disenfranchisement Reform.”  The article’s author, Communications Manager Morgan McLeod, reported that since 1997, 23 states have reformed laws that limit voting access for people convicted of felony offenses.

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Youth Voters Unite is a transmedia storytelling project produced by senior Communication majors at Cabrini University. Students in Senior Convergence: Media for Social Justice are reporting this academic year on the voting process and voting justice topics. Their goal is to educate youth voters on the importance of engaging in the political process and claiming their right to shape their own future. 


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