NEW FINDINGS: Georgia might allow nonviolent felons to vote after imprisonment

Voters trickled in slowly at Best Friend Park at 6224 Jimmy Carter Blvd in Norcross to vote on Gwinnett's MARTA referendum early Tuesday, March 19, 2019. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Voters trickled in slowly at Best Friend Park at 6224 Jimmy Carter Blvd in Norcross to vote on Gwinnett's MARTA referendum early Tuesday, March 19, 2019. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Even after doing their prison time, Georgia felons can’t vote until they’ve paid off fines and finished probation or parole.

Those limitations on voting are being reconsidered by lawmakers, some of whom want to allow nonviolent felons to regain their right to vote when they're released from incarceration.

A bipartisan group of state senators is reviewing Georgia’s broad restrictions on voting by felons, an effort that could result in legislation next year. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan appointed the study committee’s members last month, and it will make recommendations by December.

Georgia is the latest state to consider restoring voting rights to felons to more fully integrate them into society after their punishment. In Florida, voters approved a constitutional amendment last year to reinstate voting rights of felons who have served their sentences, a proposal that was scaled back when the Republican-led state Legislature required full payment of fines and fees before felons can vote.

"There are good people — not necessarily innocent people — in our jails and prisons that plan on doing good things when they get out," said state Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, the chairman of the study committee and a former sheriff's deputy. "I'm looking forward to hearing about what a nonviolent felon is and listen to the groups impacted by the issue."

Felony convictions prevented about 250,000 Georgia residents from voting in 2016, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group that studies racial disparities in sentencing. Of those, about 200,000 had been released from prison but were barred from voting because they're on probation or parole.

Little opposition to the idea has surfaced so far, but legislators should think about victims of crimes first, said Candace Sims, program director for the Crime Victims Advocacy Council, which provides education and counseling to victims. Victims often want to see criminals serve their sentences before their legal privileges are restored.

“I would need more information about why this is a major issue and why this should happen,” Sims said. “Some victims have a more difficult time of getting to a point of forgiveness. For those who are more resilient, they’re more forgiving of an offender who’s trying to restore himself to society.”

Georgia is one of 22 states where felons lose their voting rights during incarceration and for a period of time afterward, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 14 states, felons lose their voting rights only while incarcerated. Felons can't vote indefinitely for some crimes in 12 states. In Maine and Vermont, felons can still vote while imprisoned.

It's unlikely that Georgia will restore the voting rights of all felons or allow them to vote while behind bars, said state Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta, a lawyer and member of the study committee.

Lawmakers might decide to reinstate voting rights more quickly for nonviolent felons who have been convicted of crimes such as drug possession and shoplifting. Those who committed more serious crimes such as drug trafficking and robbery probably won’t regain their voting rights.

“We want to encourage people to become part of society again. Inherent in that integration process is being able to keep the right to vote,” Jones said. “When you start talking about possession offenses and possibly shoplifting, that’s something that punishment isn’t the key.”

Under the Georgia Constitution, those who have been convicted of a "felony involving moral turpitude" can't be registered to vote until their sentences are completed. But the state has never defined which felonies involve "moral turpitude," and election officials interpret the Constitution to mean that all felonies limit voting rights.

The General Assembly could pass a bill saying what “moral turpitude” means, or legislators could simply list which offenses qualify for reinstatement of voting rights, Jones said.

Currently in Georgia, felons’ voting rights are automatically restored upon the completion of their sentences, including parole, probation, restitution, fines and other costs. Felons must re-register to vote after they’re eligible to do so.

"If somebody did something wrong, got a punishment and paid the consequences, it should be over," said Doug Ammar, executive director for the Georgia Justice Project, which provides legal representation for people in the criminal justice system and works to reduce barriers to re-entry into society. "Voting is an integral part of being involved in the community, and we shouldn't deny it to people."

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