Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Florida voters mull inviting felons to join their ranks

Compassion | A ballot initiative in November could restore voting rights to some ex-convicts
by Rob Holmes
Posted 2/14/18, 05:07 pm

Florida voters will decide in November whether former felons may join their ranks at the polls. The referendum on proposed Amendment 4 will reveal whether Sunshine State residents are willing to grant free speech, in the form of a vote, to lawbreakers usually seen as undeserving.

Floridians for a Fair Democracy collected nearly 800,000 signatures to get the measure added to the ballot. An estimated 1.67 million felons—10 percent of the state’s voting age population—would become eligible to vote if it passes. The amendment would not restore other constitutional rights such as gun possession.

The vote could have further political consequences for poor districts.

“Many convicted felons come from the same inner-city neighborhoods,” attorney Estelle Rogers wrote in a 2014 paper for Project Vote. If many people in an area have no right to vote, its political power is weakened, including the “ability to gain political representation and influence.”

Florida is one of a handful of states—along with Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia—that permanently ban felons from voting except by special appeal to the governor or a committee. Some 36 states only ban ex-felons from voting while they’re in prison or while on probation or parole.

Amendment 4 would not give voting rights back to felons convicted as sex offenders or murderers, revealing a public will to permanently ban certain criminals. The ministry Prison Fellowship holds a similar position: “Only restrictions to personal liberty that have a demonstrated and substantial link to protecting public safety should be permissible.”

Indiana pastor—and ex-felon—William Bumphus told me punishing people with prison time may be just, but released felons “are returning citizens, and as such they should be afforded the same rights as other citizens” as a part of being restored to society. Converted 39 years ago “from a life of crime to life in Christ” during his fourth stint in prison, Bumphus now leads men’s Bible studies every Tuesday in Indianapolis and works in prisons as a board member of the Coalition of Prison Evangelists.

This month, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled Florida’s current regulations for restoring felons to voting status violate the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. He relied on Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s opinions that view voting as a form of protected self-expression.

But a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed a provision of the 14th Amendment giving states the right to disenfranchise people convicted of rebellion or other crimes such as felonies.

Even so, since 1996, states have gradually moved away from total disenfranchisement of ex-criminals. Thirty states have loosened laws to restore voter rights to ex-felons. Activists still say the varied state regulations mean those released from prison often don’t understand the process or don’t realize they can resume voting.

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, approved rules in 2007 to permit more than 100,000 nonviolent felons to regain their voting rights without the then-required hearing. But Republican Gov. Rick Scott abandoned the policy in 2011, citing the need for evidence that felons have rehabilitated.

Only Maine, Vermont, and California allow criminals to cast ballots while in prison. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed a state law in 2016 permitting felons in county jails to vote. State Sen. Patricia Bates decried the more-the-merrier attitude to voting, telling the Los Angeles Times it could mean the prison population becomes the decisive factor, especially in local elections.

Getty Images/Photo by Brett Carlsen Getty Images/Photo by Brett Carlsen Matt Hooper holds Nyla Hooper, 5, after she had her blood drawn for a lead test at Eisenhower Elementary School in Flint, Mich., in Jan. 2016.

Poverty and poisoning drive low reading scores in Michigan

Third-grade reading proficiency scores among children in Flint and Detroit, Mich., demonstrate that poverty, trauma, and reduced academic ability are linked.

Four years ago, as brown lead-tainted water began flowing through city taps, reading proficiency scores of third graders started to sink to levels resembling those in developing nations. In Flint, third-grade readers’ proficiency scores went down the drain, from 41.6 percent in 2014 to 10.7 percent in 2017. Detroit’s level now sits at a stagnant 9.9 percent, according to i-Ready testing. Lead poisoning has affected thousands of children there during redevelopment of economically blighted areas.

Flint school board Vice President Harold Woodson told the Detroit Free Press, “We’re in crisis mode.” Studies have linked lead exposure to learning disabilities, but Woodson said lead is only part of the larger problem of poverty in Flint.

Poverty and low reading ability go hand in hand, according to sociologist Donald Hernandez, whose research is featured in The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. “Children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers,” he wrote. And the children who don’t graduate don’t easily find a place in society.

Low reading scores have only compounded anxieties over the Flint water crisis, as the city continues to struggle to replace water pipes and analyze lead-poisoning damage in children.

This month, Democratic state Rep. Sheldon Neeley of Flint plans to open a virtual library and family literacy center, complete with reading coaches. But, he added, “This community is traumatized, and the state has not dealt with trauma.”

Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig Medical outreach workers talk to homeless clients in New York City in Oct. 2017.

New York uses decoys in homeless count

Every January, New York City carries out its Homeless Outreach Population Estimate to tally the number of homeless people and determine the city’s eligibility for federal grants. About 200 decoys—people paid to pretend to be homeless—deploy in pairs to locations across the five boroughs. They cannot draw attention to themselves by calling out or signaling. But the number of decoys missing from the count help calculate the percentage of error.

About 4,000 volunteers with the Department of Homeless Services canvassed the city at night for four hours last month as part of a nationwide homeless census. After factoring in the decoy margin of error, last year’s count estimated 3,900 people were living unsheltered in New York City.

The shadow count, or decoy program, is especially valuable because survey workers sometimes fall down on the job: A volunteer may feel too timid to approach someone or may overlook a decoy whose appearance is less downtrodden than expected. Decoys also said white volunteers sometimes feared approaching them—a problem in a city whose homeless population of 77,000 (mainly living in shelters) is mostly African-American, The New York Times reported.

Food bank in a vending machine

A British charity has a novel idea to combat homelessness: vending machines. Homeless people can use an electronic card to “purchase” donated food items, hygiene products, clothing, and even books.

Action Hunger, led by Huzaifah Khaled, already has a bright orange vending machine operating in Nottingham, England, and plans to deploy one in New York City soon. Local homeless service providers activate the cards and stock the machines and expect a weekly check-in from users. If cardholders skip a weekly session, the card stops working.

The most popular items in the machines are books. Khaled’s goal is to reduce poverty among the homeless. He told Boston radio station WBUR: “We don't really want the homeless men and women to be dependent on our service. We want to actually encourage and funnel attention to local services … that have the capacity to actually deal with the root causes.”

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 02/14/2018 11:05 pm

    We should give felons opportunities to earn back the rights of full citizenship after they have fulfilled their sentences.  Test their characters with difficult but achievable tasks over lengths of time:  for example, holding the same minimum wage job for a couple of years, or earning a degree.  God has given me multiple chances; why should I not grant this to someone else?