By Benjamin Goad - 02/11/14 11:04 AM EST
The head of the Justice Department called upon states Tuesday to strike down laws restricting voting rights for criminals who have served their time, asserting that the policies disproportionately affect minorities.
Attorney General Eric Holder urged legislative action in 11 states to overturn “felony disenfranchisement” laws that currently bar roughly 5.8 million Americans from voting due to a past criminal conviction.
“These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they’re also counter-productive,” he said. “These laws increase the likelihood that they will commit future crimes; they undermine the re-entry process.”
Holder’s remarks were made in support of the Obama administration’s “Smart on Crime” initiative targeting racial and social disparities in the justice system.
One in 13 black Americans are precluded from voting — some permanently — because of a past criminal conviction, Holder said.
“They are prevented from exercising a fundamental right,” he said.
Eleven states have restrictions of varying degrees on their books.
In Florida, for example, 10 percent of the adult population is barred from voting, and 8 percent of Mississippians can’t cast ballots because of a conviction, Holder said.
Iowa in recent years moved from a system allowing automatic restoration of voting rights for rehabilitated offenders to one in which the governor must personally intervene to reinstate the right.
Meanwhile, nearly two dozen states have taken action in recent years to scale back or repeal disenfranchisement laws, Holder said, contending the change is not happening quickly enough.
“The time for incrementalism is clearly over,” he said.
During his remarks, Holder noted that Virginia’s disenfranchisement law was scaled back through executive action, but said legislation was preferable to keep future governors from reinstating the laws “with the stroke of a pen.”
“I call upon state leaders and other elected officials across this country to pass clear and consistent reforms to restore voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole and probation and paid their fines,” Holder said.