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Democracy Imprisoned: A Review of the Prevalence and Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States

NCJ Number
Date Published
September 2013
12 pages
Authored by a coalition of nonprofit organizations working on civil rights and criminal justice issues in the United States, this report reviews the prevalence and impact of felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States.
Intended as a supplement to the coalition's submissions to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in preparation for the fourth periodic review of the United States under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, this report includes an overview of the history of and rationale for felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States, considers the disenfranchisement practices in the United States compared to other nations, and discusses recent developments in State law. The coalition is encouraged by the Human Rights Committee's interest in felony disenfranchisement practices in the United States and shares the Committee's concerns about the extent to which these laws and their impact are consistent with the critical human rights protections promoted in the Convention. Currently, approximately 2.6 million individuals who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised (prevented from voting) under restrictive State laws. Although voting rights restoration is possible in many States, it is often a difficult process that varies widely across States. Individuals with felony convictions are typically unaware of their restoration rights or how to exercise them. Because of the disproportionate percentage of African-Americans convicted of felonies, voting rights are disproportionately denied to this population group. Fortunately, the past 15 years have seen a general trend toward the liberalization of felony disenfranchisement laws. Since 1997, 23 States have changed their felony disenfranchisement policies in order to expand voter eligibility and reduce the restrictiveness of these laws; however in other States legislators have moved in a more restrictive direction. This report recommends that the U.S. Government publicly support the automatic restoration of voting rights to citizens upon their release from incarceration for felony convictions and that the U.S. Congress pass legislation that would restore voting rights in Federal elections upon release from incarceration.