Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Voting rights and the prison system

In my last post, I wrote about the Voting Rights Act and the way it is supposed to prevent disenfranchisement. Turns out you don’t need to require picture IDs or restrict polling hours to take away people’s vote. You can let the prison system do it for you.

Right now, twelve states permanently disenfranchise people who are convicted of a felony. In 19 more states, you lose your right to vote during not only your incarceration, but also during any parole or probationary period as well. Only two states (Maine and Vermont) allow felons to vote by absentee ballot while in jail. This means that if you want to limit voting in a certain demographic, you can’t do better than to ensure that large numbers of that group end up in jail. And that’s exactly what some states are doing.

In 2010, 7.7% of African American citizens could not vote in the U.S. due to a felony conviction. In Florida, 10.4% of all potential voters and 23.3% of African Americans were permanently disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. That’s stunning! Nearly a quarter of the African Americans who live in Florida will never be able to vote.

Okay, so black people who are convicted of crimes lose their right to vote. That doesn’t mean there’s any racism involved, does it? I mean, the same laws apply to everyone, right? You know where this is going.

Take a look at the following two charts. The first is marijuana usage:


And the second is the arrest rate for using marijuana.


Notice anything striking? 

There are far too many other examples of overt racism in the justice system to mention them all, so I’m just going to highlight two more.

In New York City, thanks to the Stop-and-Frisk program, a police officer who reasonably suspects a person can stop that person, question him and even search him. Stop-and-Frisk may soon be overturned in the courts due to a class action lawsuit citing racial profiling. Let’s see if the racial profiling argument has any merit.

In 2012, NYC police used Stop-and-Frisk over 500,000 times. 89% of the people they stopped were innocent of any wrongdoing. Of the people stopped, 55% were black, 32% were Latino and 10% were white. To put this in perspective, in 2010, 33.3% of NYC residents were white, 25.5% were black and 23.6% were Hispanic. This means that while blacks only make up about a quarter of the population, more than half the people stopped by police were black. I just showed you the marijuana usage rates comparing blacks and whites. Does it make sense that five times as many black people were up to no good as white people? If you selectively pick on and screen minorities, you’re going to end up convicting mostly minorities.

Finally, let’s talk about Stand-Your-Ground (SYG) laws. In essence, these laws remove a person’s ‘duty to retreat’. If you’re in a potentially dangerous situation and you can defuse it by safely removing yourself, you normally have a duty to do so. With SYG, a person is no longer required to retreat from a situation even if doing so would have prevented bodily harm. I think SYG is a terrible idea that gives bullies and would-be vigilantes free reign to pick fights and then kill people, but that’s not the point I want to make here. The question is whether there’s a racist element in SYG. One more graph for you guys showing how likely a killing is to be found justifiable.


Minorities, and in particular blacks, are much more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be convicted, and face longer prison sentences than whites. As a consequence, they are much more likely to be stripped of their voting rights. If that wasn't the plan all along, it's certainly working out that way.

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