Drug sentences extend past prison walls

Ex-offenders can lose voting rights for 10 years or more

Mark Hasse, Jason Atkins, Judge Pamela Alexander and Jason Sole
Mark Hasse, Jason Atkins, Judge Pamela Alexander and Jason Sole

Restore the Vote was an event co-sponsored by the NAACP Minneapolis and University of St. Thomas Law School. Held at St. Thomas University on February 15, its purpose was to initiate advocacy for restoration of voting rights to ex-offenders.

On the panel were the Honorable Judge Pamela Alexander, Mark Hasse (a private attorney), Jason Sole (community faculty member at Metropolitan State University’s School of Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice), and Jason Adkins (executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference). The first question asked by moderators was, “In Minnesota, the majority of the people that are unable to vote are on probation. Many of these individuals are tax-paying citizens. How do you think this impacts their reintegration into society?”

Jason Sole, an ex-offender who is now an activist and instructor, responded, “I am impacted on a personal level. I contribute in a number of ways. I am a part of so many things and I even teach on criminal justice, but on Election Day I feel weird.

“I do pay taxes and contribute to the community, [but] I can’t vote for another 10 years. It’s embarrassing, and I still don’t know how to explain that to my daughters.”

Judge Alexander added more insight to the probation aspect that Jason Sole alluded to. “Here in Minnesota, we have a tendency to use probation as a punishment. People don’t understand that even on probation one is still not allowed to vote. I have seen an increase in probation since I started as a judge in 1983. Probation has gone from one to three years, to now 10 years, and for some counties 20 years or more.”

She explained that the war on drugs played a role in the entire voting saga, stating that there are clearly a lot more targeted arrests in specific communities, and the overall impact and overuse of probation has negatively impacted those communities.

“Most of our studies have shown that people get the most out of probation [during] the first year and a half,” Alexander continued. “So we should ask our judges if there are any reasons for long-term probations.”

However, she feels that the psychological effect of the judges making these decisions is that they think as a community people feel safer when ex-offenders are under supervision, which Alexander said is not true.

“Drug sentencing is a huge issue, and it greatly impacts what we are talking about today,” Mark Hasse added, stating that Judge Alexander was one of the first judges in the country to rule that the crack and powder cocaine disparities were a violation of equal protection. “Basically it was a 100-to-one disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing in Minnesota.

“The 100-to-one means that to have the same sentence you had to have 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine. And crack cocaine was much more heavily used in urban communities.

“When that was found unconstitutional, the legislature had to fix it,” continued Hasse. “And instead of meeting those in the middle, maybe by raising the threshold amounts of serious crimes from crack cocaine, they just lowered all the powder cocaine down to the very low amounts of crack. So now we have some of the longest drug sentences in the country.” Hasse said drug sentencing is a huge issue that is going to impact Restore the Vote and racial disparity.

The next questions asked [by whom?] was, “Why should people join the efforts to restore the vote?” Jason Atkins responded, “We have this culture that seems merciless, that there is no room for forgiveness, that there is no room for mercy in our criminal justice system, that rehabilitation is a thing of the past and is soft on crime.

“However, the justice system should be about helping people restore their lives and removing the barriers that stand in the way of full participation in society,” said Atkins. “Our criminal justice system has been, for many decades, seemingly so much about punishment and deterrence from crime but not about building right relationships.

“Justice is about restoring right relationships between people and reintegrating people into society once they accept the responsibility of their crimes and have done their time,” continued Atkins. “The system is so fixated on punishment that people on probation don’t even know when their voting rights have been reinstated. Most times that is something that people usually find out by accident.”

Sole said the punishment associated with wrongdoing is severe. “It’s life-altering and can cripple you in a way where you can never recover. I understand we can’t continue to harm each other, but you can’t continue to harm me for the rest of my life either.

“I have tried to right my wrongs personally,” continued Sole. “But there is systemic oppression we have to address as well. When you think about restoring the vote, it is like the Jim Crow law. Can someone answer when the debt is fully paid?

“I sold drugs — not proud of it. I’m very remorseful, got a lot of regrets. But at what point am I done with that? What’s the limit?”

Judge Alexander concluded by asking, “What are we afraid of? So more people vote! Let’s give people the opportunity to exercise their right to vote. I take it very personally, because people died so that I can vote.”

 

Julia Johnson welcomes reader responses to jtoles@spokesman-recorder.com.