Is it time for voting rights reform for felons?

Is it time for voting rights reform for felons?

Is it time for voting rights reform for felons?

prisoners listening

Coming off the contentious 2020 election, the issue of voting rights has been in the news lately. That is likely why, this year, there is a renewed push among some lawmakers in the Georgia legislature to reform voting-rights laws for those convicted of a felony.

This issue is central to our mission here at the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO). For well over a decade now, GCO has advocated for criminal justice reforms that help returning citizens create a new life—through joining the workforce, caring for their loved ones, and becoming productive members of society once again. Voting rights are part of that.

Here’s where Georgia law currently stands: Those with a felony on their record automatically have their voting rights restored once they complete their sentence, which includes serving all parole and probationary periods and paying all outstanding fines, fees, and restitution. They are also eligible to vote if they have First Offender status and that status has not been revoked.

“Just coming out of incarceration period, you feel like you have no opportunity. You feel like there are no options. I don’t have any options.”  

 

Understanding the challenge of voting rights for felons

The goal of voting rights laws for those with a criminal record should be moving them in the quickest way possible to becoming positive, contributing members of society again. Once the individual has fully paid his or her debt to society, it makes perfect sense—and is in the best sense “just”—to reinstate their voting rights.

At the same time, there are good reasons for restricting felons from voting until the end of their sentences. Society has an obligation to prevent people who have demonstrated impaired ability to make good decisions from voting. That’s why we don’t let children or the mentally ill vote. 

Felons have an added strike against them in that, in addition to poor judgment, they’ve also—in many cases—expressed contempt and disregard for the laws that govern us and shouldn’t be allowed to impose laws on the rest of us until they have shown their respect for and willingness to abide by the law.

 

A good place to begin

So, where should we begin with reforms to voting rights for felons? A great place is also the simplest and most non-controversial: There is strong evidence that even some felons who have fully paid their debt to society face challenges in having their voting rights restored.

For example, in 2019 a representative from the Georgia Justice Project testified before a state Senate committee that there is frequently misinformation within voter registration offices, and sometimes among volunteers, about whether someone ever convicted of a felony can vote. There are also challenges with felons proving they are officially “off paper” (i.e., they have completed their probation or parole) and are now legally eligible to vote.

Let’s begin here with clearing up misunderstandings around the law on voting rights for returning citizens and ensuring that all election-related officials are applying it correctly. A big step would be for election officials to be required to accept Certificates of Sentence Completion from the Department of Community Supervision as sufficient proof that a returning citizen should be added back to the voter rolls.

 

Work is important, too

A central goal of the Georgia Center for Opportunity is to help returning citizens reintegrate into society. Voting rights is one aspect of reintegration, but there are others—like finding stable employment—that are far more important to improving outcomes for returning citizens. 

We know that work is a key way to reduce recidivism: Research has shown that if an ex-offender can keep a job for six months or more, their likelihood of ending up back in prison drops dramatically. It also improves the odds that a returning citizen will reconnect with loved ones, especially their children, another key to preventing recidivism.

GCO’s efforts through initiatives like Hiring Well, Doing Good are making progress here, and stories like Kevin’s are inspiring.

 

A true second chance | THE LAGRANGE DAILY NEWS

A true second chance | THE LAGRANGE DAILY NEWS

A true second chance | THE LAGRANGE DAILY NEWS

In July 2020, I wrote a column about Senate Bill 288 (SB 288). At the time, the governor ended up signing the bill that can help many Georgians remove the stigma of having a criminal conviction…

More than 4 million Georgia residents had a criminal record in 2016, according to the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO)

“It is vital that we continue to reform Georgia’s criminal justice system so that reformation and reintegration is the goal, and not just punishment,” said Corey Burres, GCO’s vice president of communicaitons. “With SB 288, we are making real efforts to help past offenders access opportunities that may not be available to them due to their criminal record.”

Read the full article here

 

Poverty Agenda 2021 | 5 policy prescriptions to reduce poverty in Georgia

Poverty Agenda 2021 | 5 policy prescriptions to reduce poverty in Georgia

Poverty Agenda 2021 | 5 policy prescriptions to reduce poverty in Georgia

As the Georgia Legislature reconvenes next week, the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) is calling on lawmakers to make poverty-fighting measures one of their top goals. Along these lines, GCO has released the following 5 recommendations to reduce poverty in Georgia and expand economic mobility:

Civil Asset Forfeiture

GCO produced a report (PDF download) examining Georgia’s civil asset forfeiture procedures. Civil asset forfeiture laws allow for an arrested person’s property to be seized, sold, and the proceeds used for law enforcement purposes, even if a person is not convicted of a crime. Our report makes several recommendations to improve transparency and accountability in this program. GCO will seek to have our recommendations passed into law.

Occupational Licensing

Following up on legislation passed last year benefiting spouses of our brave military personnel, GCO will support legislation to allow many other people who move to Georgia and hold an occupation license to immediately be granted a provisional license. This will allow these new Georgians to immediately go to work and support their families.

Criminal Justice Reform

GCO will support legislation that seeks to remove suspending the driver’s license of a person late on their child support payments. We approach this topic with sensitivity, knowing these payments are meant to support children, but losing a driver’s license impacts the debtor’s ability to work—and thus the ability to pay. There are better ways to hold people accountable for past due child support.

Education Scholarship Accounts

GCO has long supported empowering parents by creating Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). We will support such legislation again this year. ESAs take the state portions of a child’s education funds and allow parents to seek other educational pathways for their child. This is especially important in the time of COVID-19, where face-to-face instruction is limited but still extremely important to a child’s development.

Special Needs Scholarship Program

Last year, GCO championed legislation to fix a loophole in Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship Program that has been keeping thousands of otherwise eligible children out of the program. The legislation passed the Georgia Senate, but was sidelined when the pandemic hit our state. We will work to see this legislation pass both Legislative Chambers and be signed successfully by Governor Kemp this year.

The GCO team will keep you updated throughout the session as we work on these priorities. Keep up with us on Facebook or Twitter for regular updates and be sure to join us for Get Buzz’d a live update on Facebook from our VP of Policy, Buzz Brockway. Buzz shares his insight into how policies will impact your everyday life.

Op-Ed: It’s time for Georgia to reign in policing for profit

Op-Ed: It’s time for Georgia to reign in policing for profit

Op-Ed: It’s time for Georgia to reign in policing for profit

By Randy Hicks

Much needed conversations are happening in recent weeks across Georgia and our nation on policing reforms. One practical area of reform that can’t fall by the wayside is this: It’s time to break the connection between policing and profit.

What do I mean? Take the case of former Atlanta Hawks’ forward Mike Scott. He was stopped by Banks County police northeast of Atlanta while driving north on I-85 to host a youth basketball summer camp. A judge later reprimanded the police department for racial profiling in the case, and there was strong evidence that police were stopping drivers passing through the county for minor offenses specifically as a way to raise funds.

As a professional athlete with a multi-million-dollar contract, Scott had the resources to take the police department to the mat. But the vast majority of Georgians in the same situation would not. This underscores the fact that poor and minority populations are disproportionately impacted by policing-for-profit schemes.

We must change the way police departments are funded so that enforcement of the law and revenue generation are clearly separate. It goes without saying that courts, government, and police shouldn’t get a penny as a result of enforcing the law. Anything less creates an incentive for corruption.

One area where reform is immediately needed is called civil asset forfeiture. This is when law enforcement takes assets from people suspected of being involved in criminal activity without requiring a conviction. Police agencies may then receive funds from the sale of the forfeited assets. Used correctly, civil asset forfeiture is an important tool to curb illegal activities and dry up the resources of criminals. But the current system lacks transparency and accountability, presenting the opportunity for abuse.

What’s worse, the lack of strong governmental oversight and transparency in our system means that, all too often, a door to discrimination and undue burden is placed on folks who are simply in desperate need of a helping hand to get back on their feet.

My organization, the Georgia Center for Opportunity, has laid out a set of recommendations to shore up the system. We should begin by fostering greater accountability by requiring randomized compliance audits. This will help to ensure that all local law enforcement agencies are accurately reporting instances of civil asset forfeiture.

Updates are also badly needed to the government’s website that houses all civil asset forfeiture reports to make it easier for law enforcement to upload their reports and easier for the public to search and download content.

We could all be victims of these sorts of asset forfeitures, but the impacts are egregious for the poor and minorities.

Imagine being pulled over and your car being confiscated by police. For anyone this would be infuriating, but imagine you are someone in poverty. You likely don’t have access to the same network of friends or family members to help you get to your job. You also likely have less flexibility with your work schedule or working remotely.

The result is that civil asset forfeiture disproportionately targets those lacking the resources to fight for the return of their property. This can also inadvertently result in the types of confrontations we have seen in recent weeks, where tensions unnecessarily escalate to deadly levels.

We believe that civil asset forfeiture reform is crucial to a thriving state. We can do that by ending the profit motive behind the system and by making it much more transparent. It is a key step to create a society where everyone has the opportunity to flourish.

 

This article originally appeared in the Telegraph.

A true second chance | THE LAGRANGE DAILY NEWS

Why should you care about the ex-offender in your community?

Local coalition works to reduce recidivism rates and replace stigmas with compassion

When it comes to tackling deep-rooted social issues, no single organization can do it alone. The Greater Gwinnett Reentry Alliance (GGRA) is a coalition of service providers in Gwinnett County that works to mobilize community resources — human, financial, and material — all with the purpose of reducing recidivism rates in the county and beyond…

Other partners in GGRA include GRIP, Hearts to Nourish Hope, Navigate Recovery, United Way of Greater Atlanta, Georgia Center for Opportunity, Judy House Ministry, Obria Medical Clinics and others.

 

Read the full article here