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Holder Favors Voting Rights for Ex-Felons

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – If America is ever to end the revolving door of prison recidivism, it needs to ease the re-entry of former offenders back into society by allowing them to vote, Attorney General Eric Holder believes.

Holder announced his position during a recent conference on criminal justice reform at Georgetown University Law Center at Washington, D.C. He called on state officials, state leaders and other elected officials to reform or repeal laws that block ex-felons from voting, more than two million of them Black.

Holder said that some of the laws dating back to the Reconstruction Era were specifically crafted to target Blacks and weaken their voting power, especially in Southern states where most Blacks live.

According to The Sentencing Project, 1 of every 13 African Americans can’t cast a ballot, due to felony disenfranchisement. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia more than 20 percent of the Blacks are barred from voting.

Last summer Holder announced the Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative that includes provisions to reform sentencing guidelines, eliminate unfair disparities and reduce overcrowding in prisons by seeking alternatives to prison time for low-level non-violent crimes.

Holder said that felony disenfranchisement laws often undermine the reentry process and defy the principles – of accountability and rehabilitation – that guide our criminal justice policies.

“And however well-intentioned current advocates of felony disenfranchisement may be – the reality is that these measures are, at best, profoundly outdated,” said Holder. “At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past – a time of post-Civil War repression. And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.”

Civil rights leaders and criminal justice advocates applauded Holder’s call to lift the ban on voting rights for ex-felons.

“The attorney general’s strong leadership in calling for the repeal of felony disenfranchisement laws across the country is an extraordinary signal to states and the American people,” said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under the Law. “This is the latest in a series of instances in the past year in which the administration has taken great leadership on criminal justice issues. From the statements of Attorney General Holder to the American Bar Association in August, to the implementation of their policies, it shows that they have heard the cries for reforms within the nation’s over-racialized criminal justice system.”

Tanya Clay House, the public policy director at Arnwine’s organization, said that passing the Democracy Restoration Act, a bill co-sponsored by Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) in 2009, would restore the voting rights in federal elections to those disenfranchised because of criminal convictions.

“The Lawyers’ Committee advocates for legislative efforts that restore equality to both the criminal justice system and voting rights,” said House. “Congress can answer the attorney general’s call to action, and lead the nation by example, by reintroducing the Democracy Restoration Act. This bill would restore the voting rights in federal elections to those disenfranchised because of criminal convictions.”

During the same conference, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) repeated his support for repealing felony voting restrictions in his state. Alabama Republican Gov. Robert Bentley also expressed support for restoring voting rights for felons who completed their sentences. In 2003, state officials in Alabama passed legislation streamlining the process to restore voting rights for most ex-felons. Nearly 15 percent of Blacks are disenfranchised in the state.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said, there is undeniable bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform that would update inhumane sentencing laws and return people to society with dignity.

“America is the world’s greatest democracy, yet felon disenfranchisement laws deny almost six million Americans the right to vote,” said Henderson. “These laws serve no purpose but to make it harder for returning citizens to reintegrate into their communities – to work, seek an education, and participate in our democracy. Successful reintegration and smarter sentencing are the keys to ensuring that our criminal justice system is more fair, more humane, and more fiscally responsible.”

In prepared remarks, Holder also addressed states that continue to “restrict voting rights, to varying degrees, even after a person has served his or her prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole.”

In Florida, the state with the highest population of disenfranchised residents, almost 1 in 4 Blacks is disenfranchised and in Mississippi almost 14 percent of the Black population can’t vote because of a prior felony conviction. Iowa’s Republican governor reversed an automatic restoration order in 2011, placing an additional hurdle in the way of returning citizens. Two years later, Holder said less than 12 people out of 8,000 that have completed their sentences during the current governor’s tenure can vote in the next election.

“That’s moving backwards – not forward. It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values,” said Holder. “These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.”

U.S., Caribbean to Probe Terrorist Threat Aimed at CAL Out of Guyana

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Special to the NNPA from the New York Carib News

Investigators in the U.S., Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago have been asked by Guyana to help find out who made a terrorist threat aimed at a Caribbean Airlines flight out of Guyana to New York.

Guyana’s Minister of Transport, Robeson Benn, told the country’s National Assembly on Monday that Guyana had asked the three countries to probe the circumstances of a telephone threat made to Caribbean Airlines in Barbados by an unknown caller who was simply identified as someone with a Trinidadian accent.

“The person ran off immediately when he was pressed for more information,” Benn said in a statement about the incident which had triggered a warning to Americans and other passengers not to fly on CAL flights from Guyana. Both the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown and the Cheddi Jagan International Airport had issued the warning on Sunday. Guyana imposed a “red alert” on aircraft and passengers who planned to the U.S.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the embassy advises all U.S. citizens in Guyana traveling on Caribbean Airlines (CAL) to the United States from Monday, February 10 through Wednesday, February 12, 2014 to make alternative travel arrangements,” said the embassy in a notice on Facebook and on its website.

The Transport Minister made a statement to parliament about the incident, telling lawmakers there had been a 13 per cent cancellation by passengers leaving Guyana after the threat was made and the alert issued. An early morning flight left Guyana on Monday and a CAL representative had told Demerara Waves, a Guyana news organization that the flight mentioned in the threat had left with all the passengers who had been booked to depart.

“There were no cancellations. We had a very good showing of passengers. The U.S. citizens traveled as well,” a CAL representative had said shortly after the plane’s departure.

But Benn said later that the threat had affected airline travel out of the country as some people cancelled their bookings.

The flight targeted in the threat was BW 484 which subsequently landed safely at New York’s John Kennedy International Airport. Apart from some delays, the light left Guyana without any incident after the authorities had imposed a security “red alert” at the Guyana airport, according to Benn.

Haiti: President Offers to Open Government to Opponents

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Special to the NNPA from the New York Carib News

CMC – President Michel Martelly has offered to open his government to opponents who have been involved in political talks on ways to hold credible elections, but rejected calls to evict his Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe.

Politicians who participated in recent talks with the president told the Haitian-Caribbean News Network (HCNN) on Wednesday that Martelly made the offer in a move to ease the political atmosphere as the country prepares to hold crucial legislative and local elections this year.

“President Martelly has offered to integrate opposition parties into the government, because he wants to show openness,” Rudy Herivaux, the leader of the opposition Confidence party said. “And this is a good thing,” he added.

However, a smaller group of opposition parties declined the offer to become part of the government, arguing that they only want to come to power through elections.

“President Martelly showed openness and flexibility in the discussions, and there are parties that want to integrate the government,” said Sauveur Pierre-Etienne, the leader of the People’s Struggle Party (OPL).

“But we are not interested in participating in the government because we want to remain an opposition party and we only want to come to power through credible elections,” he said.

During the discussions, government and legislative authorities along with representatives of a wide range of political parties have reached a consensus on the opportunity to organize one combined ballot to elect two thirds of the 30-member senate assembly and to renew the whole lower chamber and local government entities.

Holder Endorses Voting Rights for Returning Citizens

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By James Wright
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said that laws prohibiting returning citizens from voting even after they serve their sentences are wrong.

“By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes,” Holder said Tuesday at the Georgetown University Law Center in Northwest during a symposium sponsored by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The NAACP and other civil rights organizations are working to persuade 11 states, specifically Florida, Virginia and Delaware, to end the practice. There are an estimated 1.5 million disenfranchised returning citizens in Florida, a key battleground state in presidential elections.

Jotaka Eaddy, the NAACP senior director for voting rights, praised Holder for his stance.

“This statement does much to make combatting felony disenfranchisement a national fight and not just a state one,” Eaddy said. “The NAACP and several other groups have been fighting on the ground to rid our country of a practice that has its roots in black codes designed to eliminate black participation at the ballot box.”

Police Video Shows Brothers Beaten, Tased, Then Charged

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By Christian Morrow
Special to the NNPA from the New Pittsburgh Courier

After seeing a police video that was kept under wraps for months, Black Political Empowerment Project President Tim Stevens has asked Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala to drop assault charges filed against two brothers arrested in Homewood last July.

The video shows police stopping and detaining 20-year-old Will El and his 18-year-old brother as they exited a confectionary in Homewood.

“We then saw what appeared to be Officer (Frank) Welling slamming Will El against the wall. Anyone watching the video can clearly see Officer Welling putting on his black gloves immediately before this action took place. In light of the fact that these men were being compliant, I personally found this quite troubling. Even more troubling was the tasing of 18-year-old Beyshaud El, when he stood up to question why his brother was being slammed against the wall. Bay­shaud was tased until he was unconscious.”

After being beaten and Tasered, the brothers were then charged with felony assault. Their trial, which was supposed to begin Feb. 3, was postponed after Lt. Rayne Kacsuta, who initiated the stop, became ill.

“No drugs or weapons were found on these men. Now they currently face felony charges. We want those charges dropped,” Stevens said. “If there are any charges, according to the police video, maybe those charges should be against Officer Welling for slamming Will El for what appears to be for no reason.”

Brandi Fisher, founder of the Alliance for Police Accountability, arranged for the public viewing of the video, which was attended by around 50 people including the El brothers, Jordon Miles, Leon Ford, and Dennis Henderson–all of whom have been either wrongly detained, beaten or shot by police during recent arrests.

“These young men should not have been stopped in the first place, and after they emptied their pockets, and it was determined they had no weapons or drugs, they should have been let go,” said Fisher. “But that wasn’t enough for Lt. Kacsuta. These men were unlawfully detained and unlawfully charged. This is a pattern in the Zone 5 station and with the department in general.”

Fisher said she too is writing a formal request for Zappala to drop the charges.

“These boys are so young. People are out here shooting each other and you want to give these two 20 years for walking to the grocery store,” she said. “We’re aware that there’s a criminal element in Homewood that needs to be removed. We’re also aware that there’s a criminal element in the police force that needs to be removed. We’d like to work with the DA on both.”

A spokesperson for Zappala confirmed that Stevens’ letter had arrived but could not comment beyond that. No new trial date has yet been set.

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