Louisiana felons who are on probation or parole for serious criminal violations (felonies) can’t vote in Louisiana, even though they may be model citizens. The 1974 state constitution and a 1976 statute keep them from voting, but those who follow the rules deserve the same rights enjoyed by other Americans.
Although probation and parole are used together most of the time, there is a difference. Probation occurs prior to and often instead of jail or prison time, while parole is an early release from prison. In both probation and parole, the individuals are supervised and expected to follow certain rules and guidelines.
The state constitution says persons “under an order of imprisonment” for a felony can’t vote. The 1976 law expanded that definition by saying that includes felons on probation and parole, who, if they violate the conditions of their probation or parole, can be sent back to prison.
The Louisianans affected by the law number some 71,000 who are on probation and parole, according to The Advocate. Changing the law hasn’t been easy, and a district court and an appeal court panel insist it’s the law. However, the district court judge and a member of the threejudge appeal panel that upheld it have concerns.
State District Judge Tim Kelley of Baton Rouge said he agreed with those who filed the suit challenging the 1976 law, but he couldn’t bend it. Circuit Court Judge Guy Holdridge of the 1st Circuit raised concerns about a defendant on probation under a suspended sentence who never served prison time.
While the case is being appealed to the state Supreme Court, Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, has a bill making its way through the Legislature designed to give those on probation and parole the right to vote. House Bill 265 would give them the right to vote after following guidelines of conduct for five years.
Smith failed to get them the right to vote in legislation she filed during previous sessions. She wasn’t willing to agree then to the five-year supervisory period in her current bill.
Bill Reilly, 44, one of the persons involved in the court suit, is a felon who was released in 2005. He said regaining the right to vote helps spur rehabilitation. Reilly said he was able to vote when he lived in Rhode Island, but lost that right when he moved to Louisiana to attend Tulane Law School. He said he wouldn’t regain that right until he is 65 years old.
Reilly talked about the time he voted with his young daughter in 2010.
“It was very powerful,” he said. “It gave me a sense of being part of the folks that are doing the right thing out there. I spent most of my life up until then as part of a different community, many people who were doing the wrong thing. It felt really good and really encouraging.”
Kenneth Johnson, 67, and a Vietnam War veteran, has been out of prison for 23 years after serving time for a non-violent crime. He will be on parole for the rest of his life, and got support from the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) that filed documents in the case.
“Despite serving his country in war, starting his own paralegal agency and staying out of prison for 23 years, under the Louisiana statutes at issue, Mr. Johnson will never again have the opportunity to vote,” the APPA said.
Ashanti Witherspoon, 68, of Baker served 27 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for armed robbery and has been on parole since 1999, but won’t be able to vote until his parole expires in 2045. Witherspoon is a pastor, motivational speaker and husband who said he campaigns for people but he can’t vote.
“We’ll sit down and discuss the issues,” he said of his wife during election times. “I drive her to the place where she votes.”
A retired criminal district court judge from New Orleans told the committee hearing Smith’s bill that the state constitution’s original voting limitations were only intended to apply to incarcerated felons and those housed in mental institutions. She said there is a distinct difference between the right to bear arms and the right to vote.
“What is the difference between a weapon and voting?” she asked. “A weapon is dangerous and a weapon shouldn’t be possessed by a person who is a convicted felon.
But to vote, whom does it hurt? That is an obligation that we have as citizens. It is not a privilege, it’s an absolute right.”
Five years is long enough to determine whether persons on probation and parole deserve the right to vote. Taking that right away from those who are living by society’s rules any longer than five years is unfair. Correcting the injustice caused by that 1976 law has already taken too much time.