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April 14, 2014 (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
Felons' rights all over the map

“Felon voting” sounds ominous but in Minnesota, it poses a potent political and civil rights question: When should felons who are trying to rebuild their lives regain their right to vote?

People convicted of a felony lose that right as part of their punishment. The Minnesota Constitution denies the right to “a person convicted of treason or felony, unless restored to civil rights.” In Minnesota, such rights cannot be restored until the person has first completed all the terms of the sentence, including incarceration, probation and parole and supervised release.

The issue, which a conservative group once cited on a freeway billboard as the reason Minnesota was “#1 in voter fraud” (an unproven claim), was back at the Legislature this year. It was predictably volatile. The two sides could not agree on a compromise, so current law remains unchanged.

An advocates’ group known as Restore the Vote-Minnesota sought to restore voting rights when a felon leaves prison or jail, even if he or she is still under supervision. They argued that this will eliminate inadvertent illegal votes by released felons who don’t understand the law, help with felons’ transition to life in their communities and reverse a growing disenfranchisement of black males, who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

Defenders of the current system, including Minnesota Majority, the organization whose political committee put up the “#1” billboard two years ago, says felons are “outlaws” who should not have a hand in creating laws “that the law-abiding live under.” Such voters would, they contend, have an interest in electing lenient judges and prosecutors. 


April 11, 2014 (Colorlines.com)
For Missouri Moms, A Past Drug Conviction Means No Food Aid, Ever

Missouri is one of 10 states that still ban people with felony drug convictions from ever receiving food stamps. Overall, according to a report by The Sentencing Project, an estimated 180,000 women and their children, primarily families of color, are disproportionately affected by this little-known holdover from Clinton-era welfare reform. Now for the first time Missouri’s legislature is looking at loosening if not lifting the lifetime ban. Even with bipartisan support however, it’s unclear whether the bill will make it through.

The majority of the other states still riding hard for this War on Drugs-era punishment are located in the South.

 


April 4, 2014 (NJ.com)
Student advocates at Princeton launch prison reform conference

Students at Princeton University have mentored inmates at New Jersey correctional facilities and worked to advocate prison reform throughout the state.

This weekend they are launching their first conference on prison reform.

“This is the biggest civil rights issue that I can think of at this time, and we want to give students the tools to advocate and to understand the different avenues for advocacy,” said Princeton senior Shaina Watrous.

Watrous is a founder of Students for Prison and Education Reform (SPEAR), which today and tomorrow is bringing students, academics, and activists together for a conference titled “Building A New Criminal Justice System: Mobilizing Students for Reform.”

The conference presenters represent a diverse array of interests and backgrounds. Formerly incarcerated persons will present alongside lobbyists, government officials, photographers, and filmmakers. The roster of speakers includes prominent figures such as Jim McGreevy, the former governor of New Jersey, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, and Marc Mauer, the executive director of The Sentencing Project.

“The goal is to establish a network of students and organizations on the East Coast aiming for the same mission of criminal justice reform based on common sense approaches,” said Princeton junior Brett Diehl, the president of SPEAR. “We think there is fertile ground for organizations to have policy reform acting towards attainable goals, rather than proposing a more radical mission.”


April 2, 2014 (The Sentencing Project)
New Publication: Juvenile Life Without Parole

Recent Supreme Court rulings have banned the use of capital punishment for juveniles and mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles (JLWOP). Still, the United States stands alone as the only nation that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 18.

This briefing paper reviews the Supreme Court precedents that limited the use of JLWOP and the challenges that remain.


April 1, 2014 (WVTF Public Radio)
Crisis in Correctional Care: Pressing for Prison Reform

By the end of this year, California must release 9,600 prisoners from the nation’s largest correctional system, because the Supreme Court says overcrowding makes it impossible to provide adequate healthcare for inmates.

Failing to do so constitutes cruel and unusual punishment - a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Virginia’s prisons are also crowded and facing a lawsuit over medical care.

The Supreme Court has said prisons must provide adequate medical services. State legislators know that, and ten years ago they were given a detailed report of serious problems with healthcare behind bars in Virginia.

But Hope Amezquita with Virgnia’s ACLU says they did nothing, and her colleague, lawyer Gabe Eber, says voters probably didn’t care. “A lot of people would say, ‘I don’t have a right to healthcare. I don’t have insurance. I can’t get my cavities filled. Why should this murderer or this thief or this sex offender get free healthcare? That’s probably one of the reasons there hasn’t been more outrage.”