Give Felons The Opportunity to Invest in their Communities Again

As a lover of politics and the legislative process, I have been following closely several bills this legislative session. Perhaps, none so closely as Rep. Jesse Crenshaw’s bill to restore rights to our Commonwealth’s citizens who are convicted felons. Sadly, for those of us who are in support of this bill, it looks like it will not see passage in this year’s legislative session.

Quite frankly, it’s a real shame. You see, as of 2010, there were 243,842 disenfranchised felons in Kentucky. That is 7.35% of Kentucky’s entire population—certainly enough to decide or sway a hotly contested election. (Stats are courtesy of a report by The Sentencing Project’s report, “State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010.) Adding to the alarming nature of these numbers, the overwhelming number of those incarcerated nationally are people of color. Something like 60% of those people who are incarcerated are racial or ethnic minorities. In other words, not only are these laws disenfranchising a large sect of the population, but those who are disenfranchised are disproportionally members of minority groups.

Of course this problem is no secret to those of us who work in the criminal justice field and calls for reform are not uncommon. Here in Jefferson County, the juvenile justice community has formed a task force to study disproportionate minority confinement.

Abigail and I have spoken regularly about the need to reform both the rights of felons here in the Commonwealth, but also the designation as a whole. Specifically, when a government strips away the rights of an individual it takes away the right of that citizen to have a say in the place where they live, work & raise their family. They have no say at the governmental level about what happens in their communities. I can’t even imagine what that must be like—to crave the most basic rights of citizenship, a powerful weapon for change, just to be denied because of the mistakes of the past.

For children in Kentucky, they can become convicted felons as young as age 14. I have had the unpleasant task of standing next to a juvenile when they were given this designation by our Commonwealth. Certainly, I understand that most people won’t have to explain to a child that their ability to better themselves has been dealt a nearly lethal blow—that getting into college, finding a job or housing all just may be out of reach. But its not beyond understanding that when you grow up with little hope of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, much less having a positive effect on the community around you, that you care less and less about how you and your community are perceived.

Restoring the rights of felons in the Commonwealth should be of upmost importance to not only our citizenry but also our elected officials. The consequences of disenfranchisement are wide reaching and detrimental and I personally can’t see how we benefit as a state from silencing such a large sect of our population. Unfortunately for the disenfranchised felon population, they have little money to give to campaigns and quite obviously no voice come election time. Getting those in power to listen or care for their needs seems to be another necessity just out of their reach.

It seems to me that if you don’t allow individuals to invest in their communities through the vote, you stifle voices who could certainly be agents of change. Potential leaders are silenced by a past that continues to dictate not only their future, but the futures of the communities in which they live.

About Courtney Preston Kellner

Courtney Preston Kellner is a partner at Kellner Green, PLLC. Courtney focuses her practice in the area of family law.