The TEA on the Voter Restoration Bill

A felony conviction is life changing, and that’s putting it mildly. Imprisonment, restitution, and stigma are almost insurmountable obstacles for a formerly incarcerated person. The ways in which a conviction of this magnitude disrupts one’s life does not conclude at the end of a jail sentence or probation. Some states strip away the opportunity to own a gun, to travel out of the country, to work for certain employers, or to receive public assistance such as housing or grants for higher education.

In many ways, the most egregious of these losses is the loss of the right to vote. Voting provides a voice to the otherwise voiceless. It ensures that the will of the people gets reflected in the laws and policies that dictate everything from school funding and sidewalks to tax reform and anti-discrimination in public services.

Formerly incarcerated individuals who have arguably been among the most affected by the decisions of elected officials are cut off from the very process that protects their interests. In Tennessee, more than 421,000 people have completed their sentences and, while they go to work, pay taxes and contribute to their communities in a number of meaningful ways, they are denied access to the voting booth. Tennessee has the fourth highest disenfranchisement rate in the country and consistently ranks last in voter participation. Voter suppression and other tactics make it difficult to vote in Tennessee. Most concerning are the well-known statistics surrounding the incarceration rates for people of color and the affect that has on these communities. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 37% of all federally incarcerated individuals are African-American, an astounding figure considering that African-Americans make up only 13% of the population.

The revocation of voting rights for those who have been incarcerated touches the black population in proportions that are not seen in any other racial demographic. In essence, a larger percentage of black people than any other race are legally kept from the voting booth as continued punishment for an offense for which they have already served a sentence. In fact, 1 in 5 African Americans cannot vote in Tennessee due to a past felony conviction. It begs the question: is the revocation of voting rights an ethical, reasonable, or even pragmatic punishment for those who have committed felonies? 

In Tennessee, those who have been incarcerated are not given the opportunity to restore that right unless they take steps to navigate a convoluted restoration process. The process includes financial requirements that are prohibitive for many people. Tennessee is the only state in the country that requires all court-ordered child support to be paid as a condition of having one’s voting rights restored. This sends yet another signal that we value those who have the means to pay for their freedom rather than providing access equitably.  

The Equity Alliance believes in fair and equal access to the ballot box for all eligible voters. That’s why TEA, along with with several advocacy organizations, such as the ACLU, Americans For Prosperity, Project Return, and Think Tennessee support a new bill that would make the voter restoration process much easier. The bill removes financial obligations and streamlines the administrative process. It puts the burden on the State rather than the individual.

On Wednesday, the Tennessee State Senate will vote on Senate Bill 0589/House Bill 0547, a bill that will move Tennessee one step closer to making it easier for those who have paid their debt to society to vote. It is imperative that Tennesseans hold elected officials responsible and support this bill. The erosion of voting rights for any demographic is unjust, and it is especially troubling when minority communities are disproportionately affected. We will be at the hearing on Wednesday, March 20th at 8:45am, and we hope you’ll join us. You can also call the State Senators on the committee. It takes action from all of us.

The Equity Alliance Joins Legislators, Matthew Charles, Advocates to Discuss New Bills that Will Restore Voting Rights to Tennesseans with Felony Convictions

NASHVILLE, TN – On Wednesday, February 13th, at 2:45 pm, lawmakers, Matthew Charles, advocates and re-entry experts will gather at the Tennessee State Capitol complex in Nashville to discuss new bills (SB 589 / HB 547) that will streamline the voting rights restoration process to Tennesseans with felony convictions who have completed their sentences.

The roundtable will feature the bill sponsors, State Senator Steven Dickerson and State Representative Michael Curcio, alongside Matthew Charles, a formerly-incarcerated activist who was recently released under the First Step Act, as well as prominent advocates and prisoner re-entry experts from The Equity Alliance, the ACLU of Tennessee, and Project Return. Over the course of the roundtable, participants will discuss the substance of the legislation, its potential to limit bureaucratic interference in the rights restoration process, and its impact on formerly incarcerated people living in Tennessee.

Currently, 320,000 Tennesseans with felony convictions, more than 8 percent of the state’s total voting age population, are disenfranchised by the onerous restoration process despite having already served their time and successfully completed their parole and/or probation.

The roundtable will be moderated by Colin Weaver, Director of State Affairs for Secure Democracy. Roundtable participants include:

  • Tennessee State Senator Steve Dickerson
  • Tennessee State Representative Michael Curcio (opening remarks)
  • Matthew Charles, formerly-incarcerated activist released from prison under the First Step Act
  • Tori Venable, State Director at Americans for Prosperity Tennessee
  • Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of ACLU of Tennessee
  • Tequila Johnson, Co-Founder and Vice President of The Equity Alliance (opening remarks)
  • Bettie Kirkland, Executive Director of Project Return

The roundtable will be open to the press and the public.

WHAT:  Roundtable on Restoring Voting Rights to Tennesseans With Felony Convictions

WHERE: Cordell Hull Building, 425 5th Avenue North, Nashville, TN 37243

     Room information: Conference Room 5C, 5th Floor

WHEN:  2:45 – 3:30 pm, February 13, 2019

   

Laws Taking Effect July 1

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In Tennessee, July 1 is when bills that were passed and signed by the Governor usually take effect as law. We’ve got a rundown of laws you need to know about. We’re not surprised that some of our legislators continue to pass laws rooted in hate, fear, division and exclusion. We’ve highlighted a few of the good, the bad, and the ugly of what the Tennessee General Assembly passed this year.

THE GOOD

The cost of expunging a conviction has been reduced from $350 to $180

Thanks to Rep. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) and Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Tennesseans with a criminal record – many of whom live in poverty due to unemployment – will have a cheaper time getting their records expunged. It immediately became a law on May 25, 2017.

Gas taxes help to improve roads

Depending on how you look at this, the Governor’s IMPROVE Act will pump $248 million additional dollars into the budget to pay for 962 road construction projects in Tennessee. The law cuts taxes on groceries. It also gives $70 million to counties and $35 million to cities like Nashville to fund mass transit to alleviate traffic congestion.

The tax on a gallon of gas is going up by 4 cents on July 1, and then 1 cent each of the following two years, adding up to 6 cents total. The tax on diesel fuel is going up by a total of 10 cents over the next three years. The cost to register a vehicle in Tennessee will increase by $5 for passenger motor vehicles, $10 for buses and taxis and $20 for semis and tractor trailers. Electric vehicles will have an additional $100 registration fee.

HBCUs get some love by Love

Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville) pushed a bill through that creates a new initiative and assigns personnel to assist Tennessee’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities with increasing enrollment, retention, and graduation rates by working with school presidents and administrators.

Adults in Tennessee can attend community college for free

Tennessee became the first state in the nation to offer all citizens – both high school graduates and adults – the chance to earn a postsecondary degree or certificate free of tuition and fees and at no cost to taxpayers. Take advantage of this!

Pre-K and Kindergartners cannot be expelled or suspended

A law by Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis) and Rep. Raumesh Akbari protects students in pre-kindergarten through kindergarten (pre-K-K) from being suspended or expelled from school, unless the student’s behavior endangers another student or staff person.

Teachers are getting more money for classroom supplies

Currently, $200 is set aside for every public teacher in K-12 for instructional supplies. A new law removes the requirement that half of the funds be pooled and instead allocates the entire amount to each teacher for instructional supplies as determined necessary by the teacher.

Board of Parole must have experience

A Senate bill (SB275) ensures that at least one member of the Board of Parole has corrections experience. Go figure.

THE BAD

Police officers’ identities are protected

It is now a misdemeanor offense to release the identity of a law enforcement officer’s resident address to the public. This will make officer-involved shooting investigations that much more secretive. HB0560

Tougher penalties for crimes against law enforcement officers

People who target uniformed police, military or national guardsmen can face tougher sentencing. But wait, where are the laws protecting unarmed black men killed by police?

THE UGLY

Protestors are NOT protected

Forget having your First Amendment right, now you can be fined $200 for blocking emergency vehicles during a protest. Wanna keep black and brown people from protesting? Make it a law. Seems like this has been directed at Black Lives Matter.

Abortion ban

Pregnant women are banned from getting an abortion after 20 weeks.

Credit cards can charge 30 percent interest

A law increases the maximum annual interest rate that a bank may charge on credit card accounts from 21 percent to 30 percent. Yep, let’s keep poor people poor and enslaved to the lender.
More Resources:

Bills & Budgets: A Community Town Hall & Legislative Update

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