Five decades after federal lawmakers enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to dismantle Jim Crow laws that kept black Southerners from voting, several states still block more than 20 percent of black voters from exercising their most fundamental democratic right.
The cause: felon disenfranchisement laws. Only two states — Maine and Vermont — allow everyone to vote regardless of criminal record. Most states don't let people in prison, on parole, or on probation vote, and 10 limit at least some felons from voting after they've completed their sentences, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
As a result, more than 5.8 million Americans weren't legally allowed to vote due to their criminal records in 2012, according to data analyzed by the Sentencing Project. Several states prohibited 6 to 11 percent of their electorate from voting. And since black Americans are likelier to go to prison, this had a disproportionate impact on the African-American electorate: While the overall disenfranchisement rate didn't break 11 percent for any state, the black disenfranchisement rate topped 20 percent in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia.
This is one of the various collateral effects of prison. Other examples include restrictions on employment and bans on receiving welfare benefits, accessing public housing, or qualifying for student loans for higher education.
So not only does prison deprive people of their freedoms while they're incarcerated, but the punishment can follow people for the rest of their lives. This extended punishment can sometimes make it much more difficult for ex-inmates to get benefits that would allow them to get a job or an education, which might leave them with few options but crime to make ends meet. And since black people are more likely to be affected, these collateral effects can help perpetuate crime in African-American communities.