Non-violent felons seek the right to vote again

After spending three years in prison and another seven years on parole, René D. Riley of Lexington knew she wanted a better life, a fuller life, the life of an ordinary citizen.

As a convicted felon, though, Riley, 44, knew that kind of life would not be easy to achieve. Finding a job and safe housing were very difficult. Plus, she said, she realized she could not vote.

Section 145 of the Kentucky Constitution states that anyone convicted of a felony loses the right to vote. Those rights can be restored, though, through an executive pardon by the governor. Without a pardon, a convicted felon can never vote again in Kentucky.

Riley was not having that.

"I am the type of person when I set my mind to do something, I push myself," she said.

When she couldn't find a job, she went to school. When she learned she could not cast a ballot, she contacted her parole officer.

She was supplied with the necessary paperwork to send to the governor's office asking to be re-enfranchised.

"I wrote Gov. (Ernie) Fletcher a letter and he wrote back," she said. "He asked why he should give (the right to vote) back to me."

Riley wrote an essay detailing her crime, how she had served her time and that her offense, possession of a forged instrument, was not a violent one. The next letter she got from the governor's office confirmed her voting rights had been restored.

The voting rights of convicted felons are regulated in each state to varying degrees. In Maine and Vermont, the two most lenient states, felons can vote while incarcerated.

In Kentucky and Virginia, the two most restrictive, voting rights are restored only by making a request of the governor's office.

Several groups in Kentucky want to change that. They want voting rights automatically restored to non-violent felons.

During the last General Assembly, House Bill 70 — which passed the State House by 70 votes but never got out of committee in the State Senate — tried to get a resolution on the ballot that would amend the Constitution and allow for an automatic re-enfranchisement for non-violent felons.

State Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lex., sponsored several measures over the years to restore or simplify the restoration of voting rights. He has pre-filed another bill for the upcoming session. He said the restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons should not be left to the discretion of a governor.

Fletcher, he said, added requirements for the felons to abide by, including the writing of an essay, three references, and an OK from the office of the commonwealth's attorney where the crime was committed as well as where the ex-felon planned to reside.

The approval of applications for restoration plummeted from a high of 97.2 percent in fiscal year 2002-2003 to 28.1 percent by March 2006, according to a study by The League of Women Voters of Kentucky in 2006. The restrictions set by Fletcher are no longer in place.

"The right to vote is so essential, so much a part of the U.S. and Kentucky Constitutions, one of the most fundamental rights that a person has," Crenshaw said. "Once you pay your debt to society, then, in my opinion, we as a society should welcome you back as a full citizen."

Crenshaw will talk about the need for an amendment at Wednesday's "Singing for Democracy Gospel Fest." Supporters of the restoration of voting rights for convicted felons as well as church choirs, soloists and hip hop gospel performers will be featured. The evening of worship, praise, and social justice is sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and People Advocating Recovery.

Riley hopes the event will change the perception of ex-felons. Since earning a degree in automotive technology, Riley said she has found employers who value her skills over her failures. Viable employment has brought her much closer to the life she wants.

"It's hard," she said. "It's a struggle. It will get you down when you're always getting rejected for trying to make a better living or getting a better job."

The gospel program "is a chance to show people that everyone deserves a second chance," she said. "Everyone is not perfect. We all fall short."

Crenshaw said that is exactly the point of his pre-filed bill, awaiting the General Assembly.