Sen. Rand Paul brought his national crusade against the war on drugs back to his home state, giving testimony before the Kentucky state senate in favor of an amendment to restore voting rights to felons after they get out of prison.
The amendment, which state Republicans have forestalled for years, looks like it may finally pass. Today, only Kentucky and Virginia permanently strip felons’ of their voting rights. Most states require a probationary period before felons can vote again, but states like Iowa and Florida have such punitive laws that they may as well be permanent. Only Maine and Vermont have no restrictions on felons voting, including when they are still in prison.
The original version of the Kentucky amendment would immediately restore voting rights to felons after they get out of prison. But once the amendment was introduced into the Republican-controlled state Senate, a substitute amendment was tacked on. The new version would delay vote restoration for felons by five years, provided the ex-convict did not commit any more crimes (felonies or misdemeanors) during that time.
State Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, who sponsored the original version, refused to present the substitute version of his own amendment. “You want to show the person that they are being welcomed back into society,” Crenshaw told the committee. “The committee substitute does the exact opposite.”
In his testimony, Paul gave a fact-based and level-headed critique of mandatory minimums, the war on drugs, and the American justice system writ large—it could have doubled as a David Simon blog post. A few samples:
- “When you look at those who are being deprived of voting, I think it is disproportionately people of color.”
- “Kids do make mistakes: white kids, black kids, brown kids. But when you look at the prison population, three-quarters are black or brown.” [at this point, one woman sitting in the audience walked out of the hearing.]
- “Not only is the incarceration unfair…but then they get out and their voting rights are impaired.”
- “We have a cycle here of crime and poverty and drugs that we need to try to get out of.”
Paul is right: people serving jail time for felonies are, disproportionately, people of color. In Kentucky, black prisoners outnumber white prisoners 5-to-1, while Hispanics outnumber whites 1.3-to-1. An estimated 22 percent of Kentucky’s black population is not allowed to vote because of their felony status, compared to 7.4 percent of the state population on the whole.
And unlike voter ID laws, which still benefit from conservative support, restoring felons’ voting rights has gained succor from people like Paul and Rick Santorum to Barack Obama and Eric Holder. Paul made the same case that religious liberals have been making for years: giving people second chances benefits everyone. “Most of us are Christians in this room … most of us believe in redemption,” Paul said. “You want to keep people from committing crimes? Let them work again.”