By Jeffrey L. Boney, NNPA Political Analyst
According to the World Prison Brief, which is a unique database that provides free access to information about prison systems throughout the world, there are over 2 million people in prison and jails throughout the United States, which is approximately 0.66 percent of the country’s entire population. Out of those incarcerated individuals, more than 50 percent of them are detained or convicted for non-violent offenses and roughly 56 percent of them are Black.
It is, and always has been, a huge issue. One of the primary issues is the money associated with mass incarceration. Mass incarceration is a multi-billion dollar business — the annual cost of incarcerations is over $87 billion dollars.
Many of the people who have played a major role in ensuring that this economic engine remains intact are legislators and other elected officials at the federal, state and local levels.
This is why voting matters and elections have consequences.
Speaking to attendees and members of the Black Press at the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) Mid-Winter Training Conference last week in Orlando, nationally-recognized civil rights attorney Benjamin L. Crump spoke passionately about the need to have people in office who care about the rights of people of color through public policy.
“Once you get a felony conviction, your life is practically ruined based off of the current laws on the books in many states,” said Crump. “It is as if you are walking dead, but they just haven’t given you the death certificate.”
In looking at each state and county, legislators and District Attorneys have the power to decide which rights they can strip away from people once they have been convicted of a felony. Of course, many of those rights continue to remain stripped away even after those individuals have served time for the criminal offense that they were convicted of.
On the flip side, legislators and District Attorneys also have the power to decide which rights individuals can regain once they are released from prison and/or are no longer on probation.
This is extremely important across counties and states in the United States, where, according to a study done by the Equal Justice Initiative in 2014, roughly 95 percent of the 2,437 elected state and local prosecutors in the U.S. in 2014 were White. The study went even further to show that although White men made up 31 percent of the population nationwide, approximately 79 percent of the elected prosecutors were White men, and 66 percent of the states that elected prosecutors had no African Americans working for them in those offices.
Although the rights of formerly incarcerated individuals are slightly different from state to state, there are some common rights that are customarily taken away*.
Federal law states that any person who is convicted of a crime that is punishable by a minimum of 12 months in prison, is prohibited from purchasing or owning a firearm, regardless of whether that person actually served time in prison or not.
Of course, voting is extremely important and voting rights vary from state to state.
The majority of states across the country deny convicted felons the right to vote, although there a few states where convicted felons are still allowed to vote while they are in prison or jail.
However, once a person is released from jail, the majority of states continue to deny formerly incarcerated individuals the right to vote until after they complete some form of probation. Even worse, there are a few states that prohibit formerly incarcerated felons from voting ever again in life.
There are several other rights that are impacted, such as prohibiting formerly incarcerated individuals from serving on a jury, stripping away their ability to travel outside the country, impeding their ability to obtain gainful employment in certain professions, impacting their parental rights, making it difficult to receive public assistance and housing, and many other quality of life issues that make life in America so much more manageable.
The prevailing culture within America’s criminal justice won’t change overnight, and it won’t change at all unless there is a conscious effort to advocate for that change.
Crump challenged the Black Press to “go to any courtroom across America and sit in the back of the room” to observe the visibly apparent disparate treatment that people of color often experience on a day-to-day basis.
Crump also expressed the importance of working with the Black Press to raise awareness and push for changes in the criminal justice system across America.
“We have to stand up for our children and speak up for our children,” said Crump. “We are together in this. The Black lawyers, Black law enforcement officials, and my Lord, the Black Press, are needed more now than ever before.”