The growing number of African-American men incarcerated in state prisons is having a profound impact on the black community’s ability to participate in the nation’s political process, a new study by a national advocacy group suggests.
The report by the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based, non-profit organization that advocates alternatives to prison sentences, found that one of every seven African-American men is barred from voting as a result of a felony conviction.
This study, on the heels of last year’s Sentencing Project report showing one in three black men in their twenties is in jail, stoked a heated national debate on whether the criminal justice system is biased against blacks, especially in law-enforcement anti-drug efforts.
The study also raised complex new questions about the long-term implications of massive incarceration, civil-rights and black congressional leaders said, fueling a debate on whether society should continue to penalize persons who have already been punished through imprisonment. Persons convicted of felonies in some jurisdictions are not entitled to vote after release from prison.
“The goal of crime policy should be to strengthen community institutions, and not to create greater barriers to community development,” said Marc Mauer, assistant director at the Sentencing Project and author of the report. An estimated 1.46 million black men of a total voting population of 10.4 million have lost their right to vote, according to the report, which is based on Census Bureau, Justice Department and state corrections statistics. Laws in 13 states bar 510,000 black men from voting because of felony convictions. A remaining 950,000 are ineligible to vote because of laws regarding felony offenders in prison, on parole or probation in 46 states.
Sentencing Project and civil-rights officials said the numbers are the result of an African-American incarceration rate that is 7.66 times that of whites. “This is another casualty in a long line of casualties created by the racial disparity in our criminal justice system,” said Mark Kappelhoff, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office.
Symbolically, the report’s findings are “significant in terms of the legacy of slavery and past measures barring blacks from voting,” said David Bositis, a senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank that deals with African-American issues. Practically, however, Bositis said he is not sure how significant the voting ramifications are.
He pointed out that in the last election, only about 48 percent of eligible voters voted. Thus, it is unlikely that all of those blacks barred from voting would have voted. And because many of those who are incarcerated tend to be poorer and less educated, even fewer of them likely would have participated in the political process.
Douglas J. Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said “many serious criminologists attribute the decline in crime to the increase incarceration. There is something to that. People in jail commit fewer crime and there is probably a deterrent effect.”