Like most Northern blacks, I come from an old Southern family. My mother’s family came from the backwoods of Georgia, on the outskirts of a small town on the Georgia-Alabama border.
My whole life, I have heard stories about segregated water fountains and bathrooms. I have heard stories about my great-grandfather. He was a firm, authoritative, imposing figure, unless he was around the "white folks." Then, he was forced to humble himself, and was treated as less than a grown man. It’s an image that is ingrained in my mother’s memory like no other, and one that was passed down to me.
Even growing up primarily in the North, I have been called "nigger" more times than I care to remember. Most recently, it happened as I walked down the street in the capital city of (very enlightened) Washington state.
For these reasons, and my basic love of liberty and justice, I am particularly concerned about the issue of equal treatment under the law. When I hear talk of disenfranchisement and poll taxes, it brings back those images of the Jim Crow South, which have been burned into my earliest memories.
So imagine my disgust and anger to find those terms used and abused for political one-upmanship and self-serving rhetoric.
Some, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), equate convicted felons who have failed to complete all the obligations of their sentences, with blacks of the Old South who committed no crime, yet were denied their basic 14th Amendment due process rights. That is not only overblown rhetoric that doesn’t live up to the facts; it is blatantly offensive and does a complete injustice to the history of the civil rights movement.
For the record, during and after Reconstruction in the South, there was a deliberate, orchestrated attempt by Southern Democrats to deny civil rights to blacks. Several methods were used to circumvent the explicit voting protections of the 14th and 15th Amendments. The poll tax was one was of the more popular tools for making sure recently freed slaves and their descendents could not qualify to vote. It was not until the adoption of the 24th Amendment on January 23, 1964, that poll taxes were made illegal.
The ACLU’s recent lawsuit on behalf of three convicted felons, argued that Washington state law, which requires felons to complete their entire sentence, probation or parole (including fines and restitution) prior to the restoration of voting rights, constitutes a poll tax.
King County Superior Court Judge Michael Spearman agreed, arguing: "The Washington re-enfranchisement scheme which excludes one group of felons from exercising the right to vote, while permitting another, where the sole distinction between them is the ability to pay money bears no rational relation to any stated or apparent governmental purpose."
This type of rhetoric demonstrates ignorance of what a poll tax really is, and glosses over what is truly at issue: the rights of the public, and especially crime victims, to see justice carried out and those convicted of felonies meet all of their court-imposed obligations.
Too often, the civil rights of crime victims are forgotten. Restitution for the financial, psychological and legal problems that often result from crime is vital for victims to be made whole again.
Testifying before Congress on the February 16 — the 10th anniversary of the Federal Mandatory Victims Restitution Act — Mary Lou Leary, executive director of the National Center for the Victims of Crime, spoke to the importance of felons meeting all of their obligations:
"The payment of restitution is of great importance to crime victims. Some of the most heartbreaking restitution cases involve elderly victims who have lost their life savings to fraud. The crime robs them not only of their money, but their sense of security and even their ability to remain independent and live in their own home. … For these victims, restitution may preserve their future. …[Restitution] is also important as a tangible demonstration that the state, and the offender, recognize that the harm was suffered by the victim and that amends will be made."
Ms. Leary also pointed out that courts have recognized that restitution is crucial to the rehabilitation of offenders because it "forces the defendant to confront, in concrete terms, the harm his or her actions have caused." A study she cited demonstrated that those criminal who paid a higher percentage of their restitution were far less likely to re-offend.
Washington legislators wisely put additional deterrents in place. In 1999, the legislature passed the Offender Accountability Act (E2SSB 5421). Under the law, "every felony offender sentenced within the state of Washington must pay at least one court-ordered legal financial obligation (LFO) — the crime victim’s compensation fee. This restitution is intended specifically for victims. Other restitution may include payment of attorney fees and fines. In addition, offenders living in the community are required to pay supervision fees while under supervision."
A felon who has not met all of these legal obligations has not paid his or her debt to society in full. So why should a felon’s voting rights be restored before that debt is paid?
The Offender Accountability Act applies to all felons equally, regardless of race or income. Its purpose — to reduce recidivism, reduce the financial cost of incarceration and monitoring, and restore victims’ civil rights — is noble, and has no semblance to the black codes and Jim Crow laws of days past. More importantly, it protects victims of all races, ages, ethnicities and incomes as well.
Fortunately, the state is appealing the King County Superior Court ruling.
Hopefully, this atrocious ruling will be overturned, and our state election officials can focus their attention on cleaning the voter roll of felons who haven’t paid their obligations.
Felon voters were at heart of the election challenge to Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire’s 2004 victory; Judge John Bridges identified 1,678 illegal votes, many of them by felons. A newspaper investigation concluded: "Scores of convicted felons voted illegally in the state’s 2004 general election, and officials never noticed because of serious flaws in the system for tracking them. Either the counties failed to flag or purge felons on the voter rolls as required by state law, or they allowed them to register without checking their status. Some were even mailed absentee ballots and returned them unchallenged."
As we clean ineligible voters from the roll and restore integrity to our voting process, let’s debate victim restitution and other key issues, but let’s do so without resorting to rhetorical hyperbole. Some terms — Nazi, plantation, concentration camp, poll tax, etc. — are too powerful to be cheapened and used inappropriately.