For the first time in 40 years, New York’s hodge-podge sentencing procedures are poised for a thorough review and revision.
In March Governor Spitzer tasked the State Commission on Sentencing Reform, an 11-member body of law enforcement officials, state legislators and criminal justice experts, with creating a proposal for streamlining the state’s sentencing structure.
The Commission’s preliminary report, which was released last month, includes an enlightened recommendation to restore voting rights to people on parole in New York.
It’s about time. A quick peek into the history of the state’s felony disenfranchisement law reveals ugly origins:
Back in 1821, delegates at the state’s Constitutional Convention brainstormed how new requirements could be used to exclude African Americans from the polls. Their efforts resulted in Article II of the state constitution which imposed special property requirements on African Americans and established a felony disenfranchisement provision which the delegates believed would target African Americans.
Fast-forward to the present, and that same misguided felony disenfranchisement provision remains in tact today, and it has achieved its intended result: 87% of those currently disenfranchised in New York are Latino and African American.
The disenfranchisement provision not only makes election administration more confusing (Brennan Center surveys have revealed that even a good portion of Board of Elections officials get confused about who can vote), but also dilutes the voting power of New York’s communities of color.
On Tuesday, advocates and experts had a chance to give the Commission comments at a public hearing at the New York City Bar Association. (A hearing in Albany is being held today, and one is scheduled for next Monday in Buffalo).
The Brennan Center’s Erika Wood testified in favor of restoring voting rights upon release from prison and outlined how the Governor could change the current law through executive order.
The Commission recognizes that fostering civic participation is one way to facilitate the re-entry process, and that restoring the right to vote to people on parole is fundamental to that participation. Hopefully the Governor will heed the Commission’s wise counsel.
--Jude Joffe-Block, Research Associate, Democracy Program