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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder / Nicholas Kamm, APF/Getty Images

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric Holder called Tuesday for the repeal of state laws that restrict the voting rights of millions of former prison inmates.

In a speech to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights at Georgetown University Law Center, Holder said it is "time to fundamentally re-think laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.''

"These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive,'' the attorney general said. "By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, the laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.''

The proposal is an extension of a broader plan first announced by Holder last year to revamp the U.S. criminal justice system, including the re-integration of thousands of former offenders who are returning to communities every year from prison.

Holder said former offenders "continue to face significant obstacles,'' citing laws in 11 states that bar millions from voting.

"Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans ? are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions,'' Holder said. "That's more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states. And although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable.''

He said 2.2 million African Americans, or nearly one in 13 African-American adults, are banned from voting because of the laws. In three states - Florida, Kentucky and Virginia - that ratio is one in five. In Florida, Holder said, 10 percent of the entire population is disenfranchised as a result of the state's prohibitions on ex-offenders.

"The history of felony disenfranchisement dates to a time when these policies were employed not to improve public safety, but purely as punitive measures intended to stigmatize, shame and shut out a person who had been found guilty of a crime,'' Holder said.

Since 1997, Holder said 23 states have enacted changes, including in Virginia where last year the voting rights of former inmates with non-violent felony convictions began to be restored.

"I applaud those who have already shown leadership in raising awareness and helping to address this issue,'' Holder said, citing the efforts of Democrats and Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. "His vocal support for restoring voting rights for former inmates shows that this issue need not break down along partisan lines.''

Civil rights advocates said the attorney general's proposal was necessary to the full re-integration of offenders when they are released from prison.

"Citizens with criminal convictions who are living and working in our communities should have the responsibility and the right to participate in our democracy by voting,'' said Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "The attorney general's announcement is a significant step forward for democracy.''

In Florida, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Rick Scott said Holder's remarks would not have any bearing on the current state constitution, which "prescribes that individuals who commit felonies forfeit their right to vote.''

"For those who are truly remorseful for how they have wrecked families and want to earn back their right to vote, Florida's constitution also provides a process to have their rights restored," spokesman Frank Collins said. That process requires applicants to win approval from the governor and two cabinet members before voting rights are restored.

In Iowa, where former offenders once had their voting rights restored automatically after completing their terms according to an executive order issued in 2005 by then-Gov. Thomas Vilsack, they now must apply for reinstatement and be approved by Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican.

In 2011 Branstad rescinded Vilsack's order and replaced it with the application requirement.

"The governor believes that when an individual commits a felony, it is fair they earn their rights back by paying restitution to their victim, court costs and fines,'' spokesman Jimmy Centers said. "Iowa has a good and fair policy on the restoration of rights for convicted felons, and to automatically restore the right to vote without requiring the completion of the responsibilities associated with the criminal conviction would damage the balance between the rights and responsibility of citizens. Too often, victims are forgotten and it is important victims of felonies and serious crimes receive their restitution.''



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Holder: Change laws to let ex-convicts vote

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