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Senate has little appetite for changing the difficult way it restores suffrage to convicted felons


Senate has little appetite for changing the difficult way it restores suffrage to convicted felons

Jun 12, 2024 | 5:11 am ET
By Taylor Vance
Senate has little appetite for changing the difficult way it restores suffrage to convicted felons
Photo courtesy of Mississippi Today

Kenneth Almons told a group of about 16 state lawmakers inside crowded Room 113 at the state Capitol earlier this year that if he could ever regain his right to vote, he could actually demonstrate the importance of voting to his children. 

But until that happens, he will carry a massive albatross around his neck over a mistake he made over 30 years ago, he said. 

“If you can’t vote, you’re nobody,” Almons said. “And in the public’s eye, I’m a nobody.”

The cold, hard truth is that most Mississippi legislators haven’t shown any desire to change Almons’ mind or taken any significant steps to show him they don’t consider him a nobody.  

A 51-year-old Jackson resident, Almons was convicted of armed robbery when he was 17 years old and was released from the Mississippi State Penitentiary, commonly known as Parchman, when he was 23. 

For the last 28 years, he hasn’t been convicted of a speeding infraction, much less another felony, he told the state officials. Instead, he’s run his own business, currently works for the city of Jackson, has raised three children and has, by most standards, been a picture-perfect example of what legislators would consider being rehabilitated back into society.

“You’ve been more productive than people who have never even seen the inside of a prison,” House Minority Leader Robert Johnson III said to Almons during an April 17 hearing. 

But because he was convicted of armed robbery and aggravated assault as a teenager, he still cannot cast a vote in a Mississippi election and, despite paying taxes for decades, has no direct say in who represents him in government. 

This is because the Mississippi Constitution imposes a lifetime voting ban on people convicted of 10 types of crimes. An Attorney General’s opinion expanded that list to 22 specific crimes. 

Not every felony crime is a disenfranchising crime – only certain felonies. This is largely because the racist framers of the Jim Crow-era 1890 constitution selected disenfranchising crimes that they believed were more likely to be committed by Black people. 

Thousands of people like Almons have only two ways to get their voting rights back. Both paths are up to elected state officials. 

A governor could restore someone’s voting rights, but a governor has not issued such a pardon since Republican Gov. Haley Barbour left office in 2012. 

The other way for someone to get their voting rights back is for two-thirds of the lawmakers in both chambers to agree on restoring suffrage. But this process is incredibly burdensome and subject to the political whims of the day.  

For starters, not every person knows a lawmaker who can introduce a suffrage bill on their behalf, and not every lawmaker is willing to introduce a suffrage bill. If those disenfranchised felons are unhappy with the lawmaker who won’t introduce a suffrage bill, they have no way to vote their local legislator out of office because they can’t vote. 

The other reality is suffrage restoration bills are not voted on until the final days of the legislation session, which is usually the time when lawmakers are fighting with each other and are ready to leave Jackson. 

While any lawmaker can introduce a suffrage restoration bill for anyone, legislative leaders in both chambers have adopted unofficial rules that virtually prohibit lawmakers from considering suffrage restoration measures for people convicted of violent felony offenses, no matter how long ago the crime was or if a person has ever committed another felony. 

Republican Sen. Walter Michel of Ridgeland told reporters earlier this year that he would never agree to restore voting rights to someone who used a weapon to commit a crime, such as Almons’ armed robbery conviction. 

“Somebody that’s willing to put a gun to somebody’s head or steal a car or steal their personal property, I’m not interested in having them vote on laws or vote on people,” Michel said. “That’s just my opinion on that.” 

With violent crimes out of the question, that only leaves nonviolent offenses up for consideration. But the two chambers of the Capitol can’t even agree on a plan to streamline the suffrage restoration process for people convicted of nonviolent felony offenses.  

The GOP-majority House this session overwhelmingly passed a proposal that created an automatic process for people previously convicted of some nonviolent felony offenses to have their voting rights restored. 

It wouldn’t have given Almons his suffrage back, but it would have been a small step forward in streamlining the convoluted process that Mississippi uses to restore voting rights. 

Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann double referred the House measure to the Constitution Committee and Judiciary B Committee. Senate Constitution Committee Chairwoman Angela Burks Hil refused to bring the bill up for debate and killed the measure. 

Hill, a Republican from Picayune, has not publicly articulated why she killed the measure other than offering a cryptic explanation that “the Constitution speaks for itself.” 

Hosemann told reporters during the final days of the session that he personally supports efforts to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have completed all the terms of their sentences. However, he believes most of the Senate wouldn’t agree to the House proposal.

“Just giving a blanket is pretty hard,” Hosemann said. “My senators want to vote individually and go through them one at a time.” 

House Speaker Jason White, a Republican from West, told reporters last month that he believes the House will continue to push for felony suffrage reform partly because he believes it would reduce the state’s recidivism rate and give people a second chance at a successful life

White, an attorney, said he often has clients who approach him asking how they can get a crime expunged from their record or get their voting rights restored. All of those clients, he said, are people who have made a deliberate effort to rehabilitate their lives and are looking to have their dignity restored. 

“I’ve never once had a career criminal drug dealer who is still in the middle of crime activity wanting to clean up and get his voting rights restored,” White said. “The people that show up are the people that have totally cleaned up their life and … want to take part in their community.”

If the House passes a similar version during the 2025 session, Hosemann could use his legislative power to simply refer it to the Judiciary B Committee, which has jurisdiction over the criminal code, and not allow the Constitution Committee to consider it. 

But if Hosemann’s comments about the Senate’s beliefs are accurate, Mississippi will be stuck with one of the most convoluted, processes for granting voting rights back to convicted felons unless those senators change their minds.