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Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States

October 01, 1998
Jamie Fellner and Marc Mauer
This groundbreaking report published in collaboration with Human Rights Watch includes state-by-state estimates of disenfranchisement rates, documents the racially disparate impact, discusses the history and impact of the practice, and presents arguments for abolition of the policy.

The expansion of suffrage to all sectors of the population is one of the United States’ most important political triumphs.

Once the privilege of wealthy white men, the vote is now a basic right held as well by the poor and working classes, racial minorities, women and young adults. Today, all mentally competent adults have the right to vote with only one exception: convicted criminal offenders. In forty-six states and the District of Columbia, criminal disenfranchisement laws deny the vote to all convicted adults in prison. Thirty-two states also disenfranchise felons on parole; twenty-nine disenfranchise those on probation. And, due to laws that may be unique in the world, in fourteen states even ex-offenders who have fully served their sentences remain barred for life from voting.

While felony disenfranchisement laws should be of concern in any democracy, the scale of their impact in the United States is unparalleled: an estimated 3.9 million U.S. citizens are disenfranchised, including over one million who have fully completed their sentences. That so many people are disenfranchised is an unintended consequence of harsh criminal justice policies that have increased the number of people sent to prison and the length of their sentences, despite a falling crime rate.

This report includes the first fifty-state survey of the impact of U.S. criminal disenfranchisement laws.

To read the report, download the PDF below.

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