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Time Served for a Non-Violent Drug Offense? Sorry, You Still Can’t Vote if You Live in Iowa

The Iowa Supreme Court
The Iowa Supreme Court
Julie Ebenstein,
Senior Staff Attorney,
Voting Rights Project, ACLU
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June 30, 2016

When Americans go to the polls in November to elect the next president, more than 5.8 million of them will be unable to vote due to a past felony conviction.

Many of them, like our client Kelli Griffin, were convicted of a non-violent drug offense and have since recovered from drug dependence, served their sentence, and returned to their communities. But because Kelli lives in Iowa — one of three states, along with Florida and Kentucky, that disenfranchise people for life after a felony conviction — she remains a second-class citizen denied full participation in the democratic process.

Kelli was convicted of a non-violent drug offense in 2008. At the time, she was in an abusive marriage and struggling with substance abuse. She completed her sentence of probation and reclaimed her life. She has since remarried and received treatment and counseling. She is now raising her four children and volunteers at a women’s drug treatment center, where she speaks to groups of women who, like her, are domestic violence survivors.

Democracy needs more participation and less civil death.

In 2014, we filed a lawsuit on Kelli’s behalf, challenging Iowa’s automatic lifetime disenfranchisement. But the Iowa Supreme Court decided today that drug offenses will continue to result in permanent disenfranchisement. And it did so, despite recognizing the growing movement towards rehabilitation and reintegration as well as the severe disproportionate impact the laws have on African-Americans and other groups who are historically marginalized at the polls.

Criminal disenfranchisement laws not only cause harm to returning citizens eager to contribute to their community — they harm the health of our democracy.

Decades into a failed “War on Drugs,” we still arrest, convict, and imprison people who struggle with addiction at rates without historic parallel. In Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa, we impose a “civil death” on everyone convicted of a felony offense, denying their equal citizenship by permanently depriving them of the right to vote.

Now, many millions of ruined lives later, we can safely say that neither prosecution nor imprisonment cures addiction. The use of our criminal justice apparatus to “treat” addiction — which is better addressed through drug treatment, mental healthcare, and community investment — is wasteful, ineffective, and racist. It needs to be reformed.

President Obama recently took action to address some of the harmful collateral consequences of conviction. But when it comes to the right to vote, most damage is done at the state level.

In the midst of long overdue debates about criminal law and sentencing reform, we ignore the perspectives of those who have been policed and prosecuted into prison by taking away their voting rights. In turn, criminal disenfranchisement lowers the volume of the debate on urgent issues like mass incarceration that affect people without access to the franchise.

Democracy needs more participation and less civil death. People who have served their sentence and returned to their community should have their rights restored immediately and automatically.

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