Thursday, April 1, 2010

Letter from Dr. Boyce Watkins - Let Felons Start Voting

Hello my friends,

I hope you'll try to join us for the Black Leadership Forum being held by the National Action Network in New York City from April 14 - 17 at the Sheraton Hotel & Towers.  I'll be on a panel with Rev. Al Sharpton, Judge Greg Mathis, Tom Joyner, Roland Martin, Ben Jealous, Charles Ogletree, Marc Morial and a few other very in­teresting people.  If you can't make it, then I'll try to get video for you.  In my new video podcast for AOL Black Voices (Called The Dr. Boyce Watkins Show), we'll cover some of the most intriguing events that take place at the forum and discuss the serious issues that affect our community.

One thing many of us have forgotten is that slavery and involuntary servitude were never fully abolished in the United States. Section 1 of the 13th amendment states that:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

In other words, we have a world in which it's OK to treat someone however we wish, as long as we've labeled them as a criminal.  This labeling can be arbitrary, since many have decided that African Americans deserve that label far more than others:  We are more likely to be arrested and convicted, even when we commit the same crimes, and we get longer sentences than whites.  Finally, once the inmate has paid their debt to society, they are kept out of society by being denied basic rights such as the right to vote or find a job.  I don't know about you, but I think this is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.  No one in their right mind endorses criminal behav­ior, but I would argue that the punishment must fit the crime.  The data imply quite clearly that this is not the case, and that black families pay a disproportionate price for America's commitment to mass incarceration.

An important issue on which I'd love to have your support is the Democracy Restoration Act, a bill introduced by Russ Feingold and John Conyers.  The bill would give ex-convicts the right to vote.  As many of us know, the disenfranchisement of felons undermines the strength of the African American family, since many of these citi­zens are no longer able to vote, find jobs or re-integrate in a productive way.  This has got to end NOW.  I am asking that every person in our coalition spend 10 minutes or more writing, calling and/or emailing your con­gressman and asking them to support this bill.  If you send a letter, make sure you sign it.  If you send an email, include your name and address so they can be sure that you live in their district.  Follow-up your correspon­dence with a phone call.  I hope you will also consider forwarding this message to other concerned citi­zens.  You can find the contact information for your Congressman by clicking on this link.   Here is a link to find out more about the bill.  Finally, if you don't like to write, you can get a form letter by clicking here.
I spoke with Rev. Sharpton about the bill this week; he supports it and plans to make it part of the agenda at our Black Leadership Forum in New York on April 17.  I then spoke with the Chairwoman of the National Black Law Students Association, Ms. Melinda Hightower - I feel it is critical that young black attorneys become part of the struggle for equality in the justice system.  Finally, my recent conversation with Mary Washington, the National Executive Director of the Coffee Party Movement (a very strong counter to the Tea Party) was one in which I clearly predicated my involvement on their showing genuine support for issues that affect the black commu­nity.  We would really like your support and hope that you understand the importance of ensuring that ex-convicts have the right to become members of our society once they've paid their debt.  It is hard to maintain the integrity of the black family if the daddies and mamas who make mistakes are not able to make themselves into better Americans. In the American Revolution, they often cried, "No taxation without representation."  Well, there are millions of felons who pay taxes like the rest of us, so I would argue that they deserve the right to be represented in Congress and the White House.  Millions of African Americans are denied access to the Ameri­can dream because they've been convicted of a crime, and their children often pay the price.

If you wish to become actively involved as an organizer or have special skills, interest or resources that might be helpful to this cause, please reply to this message and I can have it forwarded to our Chief Organizer, Jazelle Reed.  We welcome anyone who'd like to help us to achieve this important objective and encourage everyone to get involved.  I take this issue personally because I've seen up close the devastation that incar­ceration has had on my own family (my father and older brother figure both went to prison), and I want this madness to stop.

Be well, stay strong, and be educated,

Dr. Boyce

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