Easing felon vote restrictions on Georgia lawmakers’ agenda

By: - October 24, 2019 8:42 am

Bridgette Simpson asked Georgia lawmakers to ease voting restrictions on nonviolent felons at a state Senate study committee meeting in LaGrange this week. Her felony conviction prevents her from voting. Contributed

LAGRANGE – Georgia lawmakers sympathetic to relaxing voting restrictions for nonviolent felons have lots of company, but that doesn’t include Angela Idel.

Her son, Heath Jackson, was murdered during a burglary at his Columbus home in 2010. But even people convicted of much less serious felonies should have to wait until they’re no longer under state supervision, she said.

“People who offend other people, whether it’s burglaries or drugs or whatever, they have a sentence they have to fulfill, a moral, legal obligation,” Idel said. “For me, if we start showing leniency then we’re also saying it’s really not that bad.”

Emotions were raw at times this week as experts and people who might be affected by easing voting restriction told state lawmakers their stories and made their cases.

Several Georgia residents who lost the right to vote because of felony convictions, state agency representatives, and advocates for restoring voting rights were among those who spoke passionately at Tuesday’s Senate study committee meeting at LaGrange College.

Georgia law now requires convicted felons to finish their parole and probation sentences before they can apply to get their voting rights restored. Various civil rights, criminal justice and religious organizations support changing a law they say disproportionately, and often unjustly, harms black and Latino people.

A key aim of some is to modify Georgia’s law that says anyone convicted of a felony considered to be a violation of “moral turpitude” is unable to vote until their sentence is complete. So nonviolent drug offenses might not make the list of moral turpitude offenses, while crimes like bribery, burglary and forgery would. Violent crimes like aggravated assault would continue to cost felons their vote for the length of their sentence.

While people like Angela Idel say the current law should remain intact, others say Georgia’s lengthy probation sentences strip a nonviolent felon of their vote for far too long. That’s the case made by Forsyth County resident Truth Graf.

She was released from prison in 2016 and she’ll remain on probation for arson through 2040 when she’ll be 80 years old.

“I’m not that sick, addicted, struggling woman,” said Graf, who runs a peer recovery support center. “I’m well and healthy.”

And Atlanta’s Bridgette Simpson said she knocked on hundreds of doors urging people register to vote in 2018 despite her lack of ballot access stemming from a felony conviction.

“Give us the right to move on and move forward and be a part of society. Give us that right,” Simpson said. “We are people who made mistakes, but we are people nonetheless.”

Georgia leads the nation in the number of felons on probation or parole. About 110,000 people fell into one of those categories at the end of April. Roughly 166,000 felons at that time were convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to state Department of Community Supervision.

Anyone convicted of felony property or drug offenses can spend an average of five to seven and a half years on probation, according to the department charged with overseeing Georgia’s adult offenders.

“Why are we punishing someone by removing their right to vote,” said Sara Henderson, executive director of Atlanta nonprofit Common Cause Georgia. “How can we reform someone in a system that’s depriving them of their most fundamental right?”

The Senate study committee is scheduled to issue a report to the Lt. Governor’s Office after it holds its final meeting later this year. Some members doubt it will produce new legislation in time for the 2020 General Assembly, although an especially influential lawmaker is optimistic.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said at the LaGrange meeting that he thinks there’s a good chance something will be filed in the next session. Fellow Republican Sen. Randy Robertson predicts that’s too quick of a turnaround.

The study committee is created by a Senate resolution sponsored by state Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat.

“The easiest way to do it is list out the offenses that we believe are crimes of moral turpitude,” Jones said following Tuesday’s meeting. “We have a template to do that with. There may be some question about that, but there really is no reason we should not be able to go forward right now.”

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.