Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 23, 2014

Wrong changes

Senate committee weakens voting rights amendment

The Independent

ASHLAND — After ignoring previous efforts by the Kentucky House of Representatives to place a constitutional amendment automatically restoring the voting rights of most felons, a Kentucky Senate committee has finally approved a bill that, if approved by the full Senate, could lead to the amendment being placed on the November ballot.

However, before acting on the House-passed bill, the Senate State and Local Government Committee added provisions that will assure that felons who have turned their lives around and are now law-abiding citizens will still be treated as second-class citizens and be denied the right to vote for another five years.

But the changes approved by the Senate committee go even further than that. The revised version would exclude anyone with multiple prior offenses from having their voting rights automatically restored.

That’s wrong. It is not unusual for first-time offenders to be convicted of multiple offenses often related to the same misdeeds. These offenders are often young adults who have made a foolish mistake. They are not hardened criminals and they should not have the pay for their offenses for the rest of their lives by not being able to vote, the most basic of rights in this country.

State Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, who has championed this constitutional amendment in the General Assembly for nearly a decade,  is right when he said the Senate changes to his bill would result in “justice for some and not justice for all.” He estimated that about 180,000 people in Kentucky have lost their voting rights due to felony convictions. About half of those have been convicted of more than one felony.

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, called the waiting period “punitive and oppressive.” Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP chapter, said the wait amounts to “extending the sentence.”

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer said the waiting period would give felons a chance to “prove themselves.” Without the compromise, he said, the measure would not advance in the Senate.

“A five-year waiting period is reasonable to give an individual time to re-immerse themselves in society and to prove ... that they can be good citizens and not commit another crime,” said Thayer, R-Georgetown.

To be convicted of a felony, prosecutors had to prove that the individuals committed the crimes for which they were charged. But once these convicted felons have done their time and are no longer on probation or parole, Thayer and other senators apparently think they must prove they are law-abiding citizens before being allowed to vote.

That turns the concept of innocent until proven guilty completely around by assuming former felons are guilty until proven innocent. It almost assumes that once a criminal, always a criminal. While there are certainly many repeat offenders behind bars, there are also many former convicts who have turned their lives around and are productive members of society. They should be rewarded by being allowed to vote.

Kentucky is one of only three states that do not automatically restore the voting rights of felons once certain  conditions are met. Instead, restoration of voting rights requires action by the governor. While governors do restore the voting rights of many, the action is arbitrary when it hold be automatic.

In the version of House Bill 70 approved by the House, voting rights would be restored  automatically in Kentucky for “persons of a nonviolent, non-sexuals felony” upon expiration of probation, final discharge from parole, or maximum expiration of sentence. That’s all that is needed. The changes made in the Senate committee only weaken the House bill.

 Supporters of the amendment were hoping that the active support of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Tea Party Republican, would improve its chances in the Republican-controlled Senate. Paul even came to Frankfort to appeal to the Senate committee.

“Most of us believe in redemption,” Paul told Senate committee. “Most of us believe in a second chance.”

Apparently, while some senators may believe in redemption. that doesn’t mean they think felons should automatically be given the right to vote. Such a move could be risky. After all, some of those felons who have their voting rights restored could seize the opportunity by voting for their opponents