Disenfranchisement in Jails Weakens our DemocracyRoundup
tags: voting rights, criminal justice, Incarceration, disenfranchisement
Charlotte Rosen is an abolitionist organizer and PhD Candidate in history at Northwestern University writing a dissertation on prison overcrowding and prisoner resistance in late-twentieth century Pennsylvania.
On Oct. 1, 1979, Allan Lawson, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Prisoner Rights Council, was crestfallen. Only a small number of incarcerated people in the city’s biggest county jail, Holmesburg Prison, had exercised their newfound right, granted in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court, to register to vote. An investigation revealed that detainees were more concerned about overcrowding than voter registration. Crucially, many had been detained simply because they were too poor to make bail or because of minor and arbitrary parole violations.
While this story may seem unimportant in 2020, amid far more widespread barriers to voting, it points to a quiet but egregious form of ongoing voting suppression — pretrial detention in county jails.
Today, close to half a million people in the United States are imprisoned in county jails before trial — when they are still presumed innocent under the law. Many people held pretrial are there solely because they cannot afford bail; others are there because of probation or parole violations — often as minor as missing curfew — that result in detention without bail. Because of racialized bail-setting patterns inherent in the wide discretion given to judges, people of color disproportionately languish in pretrial detention, which many argue criminalizes individuals simply for being Black and/or poor. The historical struggle by the PRC to secure and implement voting rights for unsentenced detainees exposes how pretrial detention has tremendous ramifications for American democracy.
In the fall of 1971, people detained at Holmesburg wanted to register to vote — specifically so they could vote against the tough-on-crime, notoriously racist former police commissioner Frank Rizzo, who was running for mayor. But the Pennsylvania election code prohibited registrants from going to the prison or sending absentee ballots there.
The detainees sued, and after several setbacks the city finally agreed to a consent decree that granted all pretrial detainees in Philadelphia the right to register and vote in all federal, state and local elections — though only after the Supreme Court ordered a lower court to rehear the case.
Although this was a major victory, actual implementation of the decision was far from seamless. The County Board of Elections and prison administrators immediately began undermining the consent decree.
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