By Paul Braun
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE--A bill that would restore voting rights to felons on parole who have been out of prison for five years is on its way to the governor's desk after it passed the Senate Wednesday.
The bill passed the Senate 24-13. After failing twice in the House this session, the bill, written by Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, passed the House in a 60-40 vote last week.
Louisiana is one of 21 states where felons lose the right to vote for their time in prison and for the duration of their parole. Thirteen other states generally have more restrictive laws than Louisiana, according to a study conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, presented the legislation, and Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, spoke at length in favor of the change.
Claitor referenced a decision in a federal appeals court that said the responsibility to alter restrictions on felon voting rights lies with state legislatures.
The measure has faced little opposition since its surprising success on the House floor.
The bill was not debated on the Senate floor. But Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, introduced an amendment that would exclude individuals who had been convicted of election fraud.
However, the maximum sentence for election fraud is five years, making it unlikely to affect individuals convicted of only that offense. The amendment was adopted without objection, and Riser ultimately voted against the bill.
"It was kind of difficult, at first, saying 'Hey what am I doing here,'" Claitor said of his position on the bill. "But we're always encouraging youngsters to register to vote. We're encouraging others to register to vote. And here folks are working very hard to get their vote back."
According to the Department of Corrections, the bill would apply to between 2,000 and 3,000 formerly incarcerated individuals, Claitor said.
He said the number of former felons whose voting rights would be restored are not likely to swing any elections in the state. He said the bill was about redemption in the criminal justice system.
"We are big on saying 'pay your debt, serve your time and then you can earn your way back into society,'" Claitor said. "Some people would say five years is too long."
In his closing comments for the bill, Morrell pointed to the high recidivism rate in the state.
"These people are the success stories, who left prison and who didn't go back," Morrell said.
As of March 2017, Department of Corrections data shows that 44.3 percent of offenders reoffend or have their parole revoked for technical violations within five years of their release. The Department began tracking five-year recidivism rates in 2008 and does not list recidivism rates after that time.
Morrell added that the right to vote is "something that everyone should aspire to."
"These are people who actively want to vote," he said of former felons who have supported criminal justice reforms at the Capitol throughout the legislative session. "They understand how important that activity is and they are desperate to have it."
In his speech, Sen. Claitor identified Checo Yancy, who is currently on parole and works as the director of advocacy for Voice of the Experienced, an activist group that campaigns for criminal justice reform.
"This process has created a new understanding between many legislators and people with felony convictions." Yancy said. "Most of all, I look forward to just going to vote for the first time in over 30 years with my wife and my little granddaughter who has always seen me as a good citizen, despite mistakes I made in the past."