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Bid to restore La. voting rights to ex-felons gains traction - KATC.com | Continuous News Coverage | Acadiana-Lafayette

Bid to restore La. voting rights to ex-felons gains traction

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Cheers erupted Thursday in the Louisiana House as lawmakers backed a proposal to restore voting rights to some of the state's thousands of convicted felons on probation and parole, after years of unsuccessful efforts to pass the measure.
  
Rep. Patricia Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat, has proposed the restoration of voting rights on a near-annual basis, only to see it go nowhere in the House. It took her three votes in the House this legislative session to win passage that sends the measure to the Senate for consideration.
  
High-fives and shouts followed when lawmakers voted 61-39 for the bill Thursday. There was no debate on the proposal this time since lawmakers have been well-educated in the ins and outs of the issue over years of discussion.
  
Sarah Omojola, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, praised the House action.
  
"Voter restoration is essential to successful re-entry, strong communities and an important step toward the kind of criminal justice system Louisianans deserve," she said in a statement.
  
Louisiana's 1974 constitution allows suspension of voting rights for people who are "under an order of imprisonment" for a felony. A law passed two years later spelled out that people on probation or parole for a felony are included in that definition, leaving some people unable to ever receive the ability to vote again after incarceration.
  
Smith's proposal, House Bill 265, would allow someone on probation or parole for a felony to register to vote after being out of prison for five years. If passed by the Senate, the change would take effect on March 1, 2019.
  
More than 70,000 Louisiana residents are on probation or parole for felony crimes. It's unclear how many would meet the criteria under Smith's bill.
  
During committee testimony, multiple ex-offenders have told lawmakers they are law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes but cannot truly participate in their communities if they cannot vote. But opponents have said that ex-felons should serve their full sentence - which they said includes probation and parole tenures - to earn their voting rights.
  
Supporters of restoring voting rights have challenged the current law in court, but they've been unsuccessful so far. However, even as he upheld the current state law, a district judge called it unfair to keep thousands of people from voting if they're working, paying taxes and following the law.
  
Among the lawsuit's plaintiffs is Kenneth Johnston, described in the lawsuit as a veteran who returned from Vietnam with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a heroin addiction. He was convicted in 1972 for the killing of a fellow addicted vet in a gunfight. He served 22 years in prison and is working as a paralegal in New Orleans while on parole for life. Under the current rules, he'll never be able to vote again.

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