WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Eric Holder is putting the weight of the Obama administration behind restoring voting rights to former felons, calling laws that disenfranchise millions of Americans "unnecessary and unjust," and saying they are rooted in "centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear."
Holder, who has made criminal justice reform a central focus of his over the past several months, said the policies had a disparate impact on minority communities and echoed those enacted during the post-Civil War era.
"By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes," Holder said during a speech at a criminal justice reform event hosted by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights at Georgetown University Law Center on Tuesday. "They undermine the reentry process and defy the principles of accountability and rehabilitation that guide our criminal justice policies. And however well-intentioned current advocates of felony disenfranchisement may be, the reality is that these measures are, at best, profoundly outdated."
Felony disenfranchisement laws date to a time "when these policies were employed not to improve public safety, but purely as punitive measures intended to stigmatize, shame and shut out a person who had been found guilty of a crime," Holder said.
Such laws disenfranchise an estimated 5.8 million Americans, more than the individual populations of 31 states, Holder said. He called Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) a "leader" on the issue of restoring voting rights to former felons, and said Paul's "vocal support for restoring voting rights for former inmates shows that this issue need not break down along partisan lines."
The issue is getting renewed focus by the Justice Department, which in March 2010 did not send any representative to a hearing of a House Judiciary subcommittee on the Democracy Restoration Act, a bill that would restore the voting rights of felons upon their release from prison.
Eleven states currently restrict voting rights for former felons even after they have served their prison sentence and are no longer on parole.
"It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values," Holder said. "These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed."
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