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Following veto override, released felons register to vote in Baltimore

Released felons and advocates hold a rally at the Baltimore City Board of Elections to celebrate the first day of voter registration for ex-felons. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

Gregory Carpenter owns a home and a small business. He's more than four decades removed from the armed-robbery conviction that landed him in prison for 20 years, and he has spent the past two decades working with the NAACP in the community. But he remains on parole.

On Thursday, the 62-year-old Carpenter and others like him removed what they say has been a stigmatizing barrier to their full re-entry into society: They registered to vote.

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More than 40,000 released Maryland felons regained voting rights through a law passed with a legislative veto override last month that took effect Thursday. About half of those former inmates are estimated to be eligible to vote in Baltimore's primary election for mayor and City Council next month.

The law — which was the sixth of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's vetoes last year to be overridden by the Democratic-controlled legislature — overhauled the former system, which required felons to complete probation and parole before registering to vote.

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Critics of the bill argued that criminals should be required to earn back the right to vote only after completing their sentences. Proponents said it was a demoralizing and unnecessary obstacle for people trying rejoin society.

A small group of supporters cheered as former convicts handed in their voting forms at the counter of the Baltimore City Board of Elections office near City Hall.

During a news conference before submitting his form, Carpenter proclaimed it a "pivotal moment in Baltimore."

Carpenter, who said he has voted vicariously through family members for years, compared watching the democratic process play out from the sidelines to "window-shopping" — and not being able to buy anything.

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"We don't have to window-shop anymore," he said. "We have a say in who becomes our leader. We have to engage in the civic process."

Now that Maryland's former convicts have won the right to cast ballots in local, state and national elections, Carpenter said, it's crucial that they register and do so.

It will be an uphill battle to get that population registered, he said, largely because of their distrust and disregard of a political system they believe created policies that locked up hundreds of thousands of them.

"We've been disenfranchised for so long, we don't think the process works," he said.

Reginald Smith, 53, who is on probation after serving 14 years in prison for attempted murder, said reinstating voting rights to former inmates is the first of several reforms he hopes to see.

The Upton man was released in 2012, and his probation is scheduled to end in 2019. Under the old law, he would have been ineligible to vote for Baltimore's next mayor or the next U.S. president.

"It helps me to know my voice is real and can be heard," Smith said. "It's a big, historical step."

Some inmates enroll in and complete college courses while incarcerated, he said, only to be released and find that — despite a degree — no one will hire them because of their convictions.

Rehabilitation and re-entry is heavily stressed during the parole and probation period, Smith said, but "society doesn't allow you to rehabilitate."

If former inmates turn out en masse to vote, it could open the door to additional victories, Smith said.

"We may be able to put in office somebody that can reach out to help us," he said.

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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