Chris Uggen's Blog: democracy's ghosts

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

democracy's ghosts

i just screened democracy's ghosts: how 5 million americans have lost the right to vote, an aclu documentary made by off-ramp films.

the 34-minute film features some persuasive interviews with former felons and activists, as well as lani guinier and alex keyssar of harvard, marc mauer of the sentencing project, congressman/civil rights icon john lewis, evangelist/watergate icon chuck colson, and actor charles dutton. the dvd also includes a 10-minute short version, 5 "expert perspective" segments (where i pop up briefly -- i did a quick interview in dc on my way to maryland this spring), 5 issue-specific pieces, a graphic video, and a short trailer, which you can see in quicktime or windows media player. the film is designed as an "advocacy tool," so it doesn't give much time to the perspectives of disenfranchisement defenders such as roger clegg. florida governor jeb bush is shown in clemency hearings, but i doubt he'll be using this particular footage for campaign ads.

that said, i think it could be useful in provoking classroom discussion in criminology or political sociology or racial and ethnic studies courses. i'm too close to really judge whether students would find it interesting, but the film seems lively and well-informed to me. it was nice to see some research on the issue put to use, albeit without the caveats that we always try to include in the articles. the dvd touches on the racial history and impact of disenfranchisement, the numbers affected, recidivism and reentry, and other issues that jeff, and melissa, and angie and i have studied. my quick google search couldn't find a site for the film yet, but www.democracysghosts.org should be online anytime now. i got my copy of the dvd through rachel devaney at commtemp@aclu.org.

11 Comments:

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Goesh said...

Any data on the numbers who would want to vote? Any differences I wonder on those incarcerated wanting the franchise V. those on the outside? What could account for the difference, my hunch being more on the inside would want to vote than on the outside? I would speculate that the need for employment, housing and meeting probation/parole demands would pretty much occupy the time and minds of those released. This whole thing is way out of the meager expertise I have in the field of human services - has anyone ever approached a P&P office to survey paroles on such matters?

 
At 6:27 PM, Blogger christopher uggen said...

great idea, goesh. we can't say with certainty how many would vote, but there are a few scattered pieces of evidence.

our national models -- based on demographic characteristics of incarcerated populations -- suggest levels roughly half those of the general population. of minnesota releasees in 1990, we found that about 20 percent had voted by 2004. our qualitative interviews with probationers and parolees showed somewhat less interest than among prisoners, but we can't generalize from the small and selective sample. we are currently working on a more systematic study of voting and successful completion of probation and parole, but this will take some time.

 
At 8:26 AM, Blogger Goesh said...

I would imagine that amongst a prison population there would be a very high percetage of inmates expressing a desire to have the right to vote. It would be interesting to ask of them in the same survey that if they had the right to vote, would they.

I am not surprised at the 20% number from that 1990 survey. It is 30 approximate points less than the national average. It is just damn hard for ex-felons to get a decent job - that along with other demands unique to those on the outside would put voting lower on the priority list. Hmmm - were non-felons on parole/probation required to vote as a condition of parole/probation, would the ACLU object??

 
At 10:39 AM, Anonymous chris said...

that's a very interesting idea, goesh. judges still get wide discretion in setting conditions of probation and parole (e.g., regarding travel, work, friendship patterns, use of legal substances). voting opportunities are infrequent, but voting could be coupled with some sort of civics curriculum or participation in school board, city council meetings, etc. parolees and probationers are often mandated to attend all sorts of meetings (e.g., AA/NA, anti-violence groups, family counseling...). it might be worth piloting such a program and conducting a small-scale experiment.

 
At 11:56 AM, Blogger Goesh said...

- yeah, supplement the old standards of not drinking/drugging, not associating with crooks and getting a job with mandatory participation in community/public meetings and voting. This probably wouldn't fly 'down South' but it could stand a chance in some places. Traditional approaches certainly are not very successful, that's for sure.

When Crookston began their 3 tier facility and started using work release, I did a Grad Counseling practicum with the minimum and medium guys, 10 of them. I always had them write one page essays on topics like why a good used car is better for a parolee than a new one, why I like to smoke pot, what I like in a woman(non physical attributes), what is the best job for me, what is the worst job for me, where I see myself in 10 years, does God exist, etc. That was the focus of 'therapy' - I would randomly pick out an essay, read it and then we would discuss them each week.

I felt that traditional therapy only reminded them of their failures and that hope was based on the expectations of others through traditional modalities. The essays were done on identical paper, no names, put in a pile which I would shuffle at great length in front of everyone then read one. After a couple of times, some very interesting discussions came about, sometimes quite intense. My sole task was to insure there were no disruptions while one man was speaking and throw in an occasional observation or question to the group.
I had no way to assess the impact of this approach on recidivism. Good ideas abound, but putting them to work is the problem. How well does the academic arena prepare students for that task, particularly your discipline?

 
At 10:38 PM, Blogger pete said...

I've just begun getting interested in felon disenfranchisement. Have read up on some stuff from a variety of media outlets; my guess is that most people are unaware, that millions of people who have been incarcerated do not have the right to vote. Recently sent emails to a variety of television shows asking them to do a show on this issue. Here is my statement

Is it possible, for their to be a show on the lifetime prohibition of the right to vote, by many ex felons, who have long since paid their debt to society? Permanent felon disenfranchisement is becoming an institution of several Southern states; the part of the country that, historically, has had the highest incarceration rates, and some of the worst racial disparities within the criminal justice system, is also the one most tenaciously holding on to restrictive ballot access. Florida, Kentucky, Virginia, and Alabama currently have draconian laws that disenfranchise ex felons for the rest of their lives. In Florida alone, 600,000 are essentially ghost citizens, citizens who work and pay their taxes in Florida, but who are ineligible to vote.

 
At 10:38 PM, Blogger pete said...

I've just begun getting interested in felon disenfranchisement. Have read up on some stuff from a variety of media outlets; my guess is that most people are unaware, that millions of people who have been incarcerated do not have the right to vote. Recently sent emails to a variety of television shows asking them to do a show on this issue. Here is my statement

Is it possible, for their to be a show on the lifetime prohibition of the right to vote, by many ex felons, who have long since paid their debt to society? Permanent felon disenfranchisement is becoming an institution of several Southern states; the part of the country that, historically, has had the highest incarceration rates, and some of the worst racial disparities within the criminal justice system, is also the one most tenaciously holding on to restrictive ballot access. Florida, Kentucky, Virginia, and Alabama currently have draconian laws that disenfranchise ex felons for the rest of their lives. In Florida alone, 600,000 are essentially ghost citizens, citizens who work and pay their taxes in Florida, but who are ineligible to vote.

 
At 10:56 AM, Anonymous chris said...

good points, pete. the awareness is increasing, but there is still such a stigma that most ex-felons would rather not talk about it. there have been some good documentaries, but nothing that's gotten a ton of mainstream attention.

 
At 2:16 PM, Blogger pete said...

Thanks for the feedback. I believe there is a female ex felon, in Vrginia, who tried to go through the courts, to get her right to vote, without much success; moreover there is also some litigation going on in Alabama. I believe the secretary of state,in Alabama,is trying to keep the publicity, of voter disenfranchisement, down. My question; given the conservative bent of the Supreme Court, particularly after Alito is nominated, how succesful is litigation, on voter disenfranchisement, going to be? What about a march, through the four states that have a lifetime ban on voting for ex felons, might that bring some publicity? Do you expect this disenfranchisement to be overturned in the near future?

 
At 3:06 PM, Anonymous chris said...

pete, the richardson v. ramirez precedent is pretty strong, so i'm not expecting the u.s. supreme court to overturn the practice of disenfranchisement. more change is coming in state legislatures, and in blanket pardons by governors (e.g., in iowa this year).

 
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