Maybe you've heard that the United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other wealthy industrial country. Or that at any given time, a larger percentage of Americans are behind bars than people anywhere else on the planet.
Most of those prisoners are eventually released, and when they are free, they find themselves barred from voting — for good — by laws denying the franchise to convicted felons. Not just while they're doing time, but permanently.
Those denied the vote include more than 2 million black adults. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, it's 1 of every 5 black adults. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a legal conference that once you've done your time and are no longer on probation or under court supervision, you should be able to vote. He called on states to change their laws.
We asked two experts for their opinions.
Inside Story: Do we preclude felons from voting because they have compromised judgment?
Roger Clegg: We have certain minimum objective standards of responsibility and trustworthiness that we expect before we entrust them with the solemn enterprise of self-government. People who have been convicted of certain crimes do not meet that standard.
IS: If they return from prison, haven’t they paid their price?
RC: No. The "debt to society" metaphor is a misleading one. Even after you serve your sentence doesn’t mean society has to accept that. We don’t let sex offenders work in schools. We don’t let felons possess firearms or serve on juries.
IS: If America is alone on this among industrialized countries, shouldn’t we reconsider?
RC: I’m not sure that is the case. But even if it were, this is not a novel policy. This is a policy with roots in ancient Greece, ancient Rome and England. The fact that some other countries have gone another way may mean we should re-evaluate the policy. And I think that is fine. There are a lot of things that other countries do that we don’t do.
Inside Story: What are the most restrictive states?
Marc Mauer: Florida, Kentucky, Virginia and Iowa. All of those states have a lifetime ban in voting after conviction. Overall there are 11 states that disenfranchise at least some people after they complete their sentence. Only a quarter of the 5.8 million are in prison. These are mostly people living in the community, working and paying taxes who cannot vote.
IS: Thirty-eight percent of disenfranchised citizens are black. How many of these people are white?
MM: Whites are a majority of the population in the country. Still, there is a disproportionate number of blacks disenfranchised. It gets to be very high in states that disenfranchise particularly ex-felons. One in 5 in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia black people are disenfranchised.
Virginia recently changed the practice of getting rights restored. (Former) Governor (Robert) McDonnell opened up the process considerably. He said essentially that a nonviolent felony would entitle you to virtual guaranteed reinstatement if you applied. The challenge in the state of Virginia is that it is a relative drop in the bucket. It would be 8,000 people out of more than 300,000 felons or ex-felons. Just because he announces it does not mean everyone heard the announcement. Roughly 100,000 would be eligible. From my point of view it is a question of changing the policy at all. Commendable as his actions were.
IS: How do you respond to states’ rights arguments?
MM: They can determine voting laws. We think the way they have gone about it is very restrictive and undemocratic. Policies in the U.S. overall are very extreme by the standards of industrialized nations. There are no other nations that disenfranchise felons after they return to society, and it's almost unheard of (to bar) parolees and probationees from voting. Maine and Vermont even permit inmates to vote.
This panel was assembled for the broadcast of “Inside Story.”
For future hard-hitting conversations, find Al Jazeera America on your TV.