Story and graphic by Brittany Ellis
Roger Cummings has been out of a Kentucky prison for three years now and would like his voting rights restored.
The 47-year-old from Shelbyville was driving under the influence when he was involved in a car crash that killed two people. Cummings went to prison in 2004 and spent nine years behind bars.
“I made a bad mistake but everyone messes up,” Cummings said. “People should be able to get their rights back and become a productive member of society.”
As he’s gotten older, Cummings has become more interested in politics and would like the opportunity to vote.
At least 180,000 Kentucky felons have completed their sentences but still cannot vote under Kentucky law, unless granted a pardon from the governor, according to Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
Only four other states have a difficult process similar to Kentucky’s that hinders the restoration of voting rights to non-violent felons.
House Bill 70 proposes an amendment to section 145 of the Constitution of Kentucky, which would give Kentucky voters the opportunity to decide whether to grant automatic restoration of voting rights to most former felons once they have fully served their sentences.
House Bill 70 was first introduced in 2007 but has repeatedly died in Kentucky Senate. The original bill originally would have automatically restored nonviolent felons their voting rights. The current bill will give Kentucky voters the opportunity to make that decision.
Former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear’s executive order asked that most nonviolent felons have their voting rights restored, but it was reversed by current Gov. Matt Bevin in December 2015.
“While I have been a vocal supporter of the restoration of rights, it is an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people,” Bevin said in a press release.
Fairness for felons
Kentucky is one of the most punitive states in the U.S., and the U.S. is one of the most punitive countries in the world when it comes to prison policy, said Judah Schept, an assistant professor at Eastern’s School of Justice Studies and author of “Progressive Punishment: Job loss, jail growth, and the neoliberal logic of carceral expansion”.
“The idea that people who have spent time in prison have their voting rights taken away really violates notions of democracy, second chances and re-entry,” Schept said. “And I think most people believe in these things.”
Schept believes, categorically across the board, that every felon, not just low-class, should receive their rights back.
“Where do we draw the line? Saying that some people deserve their rights back and others don’t is dangerous and has no real justification.”
Schept believes hampering felons’ rights to vote only decreases the chances of reintegrating them back into society once they have served their sentences.
“What we are essentially doing to people is forcing a social and civic debt on them,” Schept said. “Yes, you have done your time and we will consistently remind you of that.
Bill language has problems
The governor and U.S. Senator Rand Paul seem to support the bill, but the problem is adding more cumbersome language that doesn’t help people get their voting rights, and suppresses voter turnout, Marzian said.
Judah Schept thinks the bill has the potential to do a lot of good, but he still has some issues with it.
“All of these amendments that have been added by congressmen will extend permanent disenfranchisement to felons,” Schept said. “Again, it flies in the face of the notion that what we should we do is facilitate felons back into the community, help them find employment, get an education and most definitely-help them engage as a citizen.”
Bill sponsor Rep. Mary Lou Marzian is confident House Bill 70 will pass if it goes to Kentucky voters in November.
“This bill has been around in some way for about 20 years and it has gotten progressively more and more house votes supporting it,” Marzian said. “People are finally seeing the unfairness of it.”
Marzian recognizes that only a few other states are dealing with this issue.
Felons struggle in the real world
Kentucky Rep. Rita Smart said the bill, if passed, would make a difference in felons’ day-to-day lives.
“These are people who got in a fight in college who are now 50 years old and still can’t vote,” Smart said.
Smart has talked with felons who couldn’t go on field trips with their children and grandchildren, and how they have a harder time keeping jobs.
“A man who had a wonderful record working for a company was fired after the company was sold when his background check revealed he was a felon who had served probation.”
Cummings was fired from a job after the company found out he was a felon.
“I told them up-front about my background. I was trying to do the right thing,” Cummings said. “Ninety percent of ex-felons struggle to find jobs, and they lie about their past because they have to.”
However, Smart says there are opposing opinions to the bill, because people don’t agree that all “low-class” felons deserve to have their voting rights restored.
“A Lexington representative pointed out that someone who was breaking and entering could be considered low-class.”
Additional bill would clear felon record
The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has not come out with a position on restoring felons’ voting rights, said Jessica Fletcher, the chamber’s director of communications.
“However, we do track and support House Bill 40, which would allow individuals charged with a single, non-violent Class D Felony to have their record expunged after time is served and a waiting period has passed.”
The bill promotes the idea that once time has been served, individuals deserve to be restored of some normalcy.
“We cannot allow portions of the public that were previously marginalized, whether it is disabled or elderly workers or in this case former felons, to just be treated with a broad brush and just say ‘OK, they don’t deserve to ever do meaningful work because they made a mistake when they were 20 years old,” said Dave Adkisson, chamber president and CEO.
Restoring Kentucky felons voting rights would give felons their voice back in politics, but it’s clear there are other underlying problems that felons face once they are out of prison.
An 82-9 vote approved House Bill 70. It is now before the Kentucky Senate.
“Everyone needs a second chance,” Cummings said. “I hope this story can change lives.”
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