Senate panel considers ex-felons' right to vote


Carl Owens was 20 years old when he was busted for holding up a Baltimore convenience store in 1971. Two years later, he wrote a bad check -- a second conviction that leaves the Johns Hopkins University instructor unable to vote today.

Owens and more than 150 others packed a state Senate committee room yesterday for a hearing on a bill that would restore the right to vote to felons and other criminals after they complete their sentences. Thirty-two states have such laws.

"I made a mistake years ago, and since then I have been an exemplary citizen," said Owens, 50. "I am asking the state of Maryland to stop treating me like a criminal."

An identical proposal was filed in the General Assembly last year, but it died on a 5-5 vote in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

The proposal could have a better chance this year, though, because the committee has two new members and one senator who opposed the bill last year is now undecided.

Supporters of the bill say Maryland's law doesn't disenfranchise just two-time felons, but also anyone twice convicted of hundreds of lesser offenses labeled "infamous crimes."

Those crimes include writing bad checks, using false identification to buy alcohol, making false statements, and falsely pulling a fire alarm.

"These people, just like Revolutionary and pre-Revolutionary patriots, find themselves victims of taxation without representation," said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill.

The proposal is supported by a diverse coalition of organizations ranging from the Maryland Catholic Conference to Free State Justice, a gay rights group. No one testified against the measure during the three-hour hearing, but some senators appear to strongly oppose the idea.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, argued that twice-convicted criminals can regain their voting rights by petitioning the governor's office for a partial pardon. "What about the person who sells drugs to our children who is not reformed?" Harris asked.

Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a church-based activist group, estimates that more than 60,000 residents of Maryland -- including 12,000 in the city -- would regain the right to vote if the proposal becomes law.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 15.4 percent of black men in the state are not eligible to vote because they have twice been convicted of a felony or infamous crime.

"This issue is about class and color," said the Rev. Curtis Jones, co-chairman of BUILD, who brought more than 100 ex-offenders to the hearing. "This is the creation of a permanent underclass."

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

11 a.m. Senate meets, Senate chamber.

11 a.m. House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

1 p.m. Senate Budget and Taxation subcommittee, hearing on child welfare and child support enforcement budgets, Room 3 West, Miller Senate Office Building.

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