ANNAPOLIS – More than 150 ex-offenders and their supporters waited three hours Thursday to tell the House Ways and Means Committee that felons should have their voting rights restored once they’ve done their time.
“We have an enormous outpouring of people who will have an impact,” said Delegate Salima S. Marriott. “Two times as many people were here earlier but had to leave.”
Marriott, D-Baltimore, a sponsor of the House legislation to reinstate voting rights, said “citizenship should not be denied to ex-offenders” once they’ve completed their sentences. Restoration of such rights, she said, reduces recidivism.
Seventeen states have enfranchised their ex-felons, according to Jessie Allen, of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Passing such a “common sense” law, she said, would put Maryland in the mainstream, and added that denying the tool of participation in society does not pay off.
Before 2002, a person convicted of a felony was barred from being able to vote ever again. Now Maryland law allows a felon to vote following the completion of a sentence, unless they are a second-time offender, who must wait three years before they can be reinstated.
Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham Sr., founder of the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition, said more than 200,000 people in Baltimore would be affected by the legislation.
Amy Cruice, American Civil Liberties Union Eastern Shore, told the committee that denying ex-felons the right to vote is a serious civil rights violation.
“Disenfranchisement keeps African-Americans out of the voting booths,” said Cruice.
Delegate Nancy J. King, D-Montgomery, questioned whether ex-felons would be allowed to serve jury duty.
Attorney John Willis, former Maryland Secretary of State, replied that jurors are selected independent of voter registration.
At a hearing earlier this month before the Senate Education, Health, and Environment Committee, Baltimore resident Archie Hill, a rehabilitated drug addict, said it’s about time for Maryland to recognize that ex-felons are people trying to make constructive changes in their lives.
More than 4 million Americans are disqualified from voting because of current or immediate conviction, according to Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project.
“Disenfranchising felons runs counter to the framework for getting them (inmates) out of prison and engaged in the community as soon as possible,” said Mauer, of his national non-profit organization that works on sentencing reform and criminal justice advocacy.
According to Cheatham, the 2002 statute is largely unworkable because completion of a criminal sentence is not a reportable event in Maryland.
Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, repeatedly questioned the rationale of the bill, saying it would allow ex-felons the right to vote while on parole and probation.
Current law is already generous, Harris said, allowing ex-offenders to vote even after a violent crime.
“I think existing legislation is the proper construct, with the removal of voting rights for a serious crime, you get voting rights denied for a period of time,” Harris said.
“Would you give the snipers the right to vote?” Harris asked, referring to the two men who terrorized the Washington region in October 2002. “This bill is an incredible leap, and it sends the message that crime does not have serious consequences.”