WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder called on a group of states Tuesday to restore voting rights to ex-felons, part of a push to fix what he sees as flaws in the criminal justice system that have a disparate impact on racial minorities.
"It is time to fundamentally rethink laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision," Holder said, targeting 11 states that he said continue to restrict voting rights for former inmates, even after they've finished their prison terms.
"Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans — 5.8 million of our fellow citizens — are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions," Holder told a symposium on criminal justice at Georgetown University.
Now into his fifth year as attorney general and hinting that this year might be his last, Holder survived political controversies that, early on, placed him on the defensive. Now, he is doubling down on the kinds of issues that have long held his interest during a career in law enforcement — prison overcrowding, overly harsh mandatory drug sentences and school disciplinary policies that he says push kids into street crime.
Congress used to be the place that highlighted Holder's problems, including a plan to try terrorists in New York City and the failed Justice Department investigation of gun smuggling in Arizona that ended in the death of a border patrol agent.
Now, Holder is talking about partnering up with conservative lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who shares concerns such as mandatory minimum prison sentences that can put away low-level drug offenders for decades. On Tuesday, Holder took note of the fact that Paul was to be a participant in the criminal justice symposium later in the morning.
On a topic with racial overtones, Holder said 2.2 million black citizens, or nearly one in 13 African-American adults, are banned from voting because of these laws, and he said the ratio climbs to one in five in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia.
"Although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African-Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable."
The 11 states identified by the Justice Department as restricting voting rights of former inmates are Arizona, Florida, Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Wyoming, Tennessee and Virginia.
In Iowa, action by the governor caused the state to move from automatic restoration of rights following completion of a criminal sentence to an arduous process requiring direct intervention by the governor in every individual case, Holder said.
"It's no surprise that, two years after this change — of the 8,000 people who had completed their sentences during that governor's tenure — voting rights had been restored to fewer than 12," the attorney general added.
Reaction was swift. In Iowa, the governor's office disputed Holder's figures, saying that in 2013, the voting rights of 21 individuals were restored. No applications were denied, and seven applications are pending, the governor's office said.
Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad "believes that when an individual commits a felony, it is fair they earn their rights back by paying restitution to their victim, court costs, and fines," said Jimmy Centers, the governor's spokesman. Centers said Branstad has no plans to change the current process and that too often, victims are forgotten.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said if a prisoner has served a sentence and is a productive citizen, "I believe the people should have their rights." Those convicted of most felonies in the state can apply to the parole board to get their voting rights restored once they have finished their sentences and probation and paid all fines and restitution.
If Holder has been on an aggressive streak, it's by design.
A year ago, he ordered up a review to find areas in the Justice Department's mission that needed change.
The first results became public last August, when Holder instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. He said long mandatory terms have flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted money away from crime fighting.
A month ago, Holder joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan in pressing the nation's schools to abandon disciplinary policies that send students to court instead of the principal's office. The two Cabinet officials said "we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students."
Then over the weekend, Holder applied a landmark Supreme Court opinion to the Justice Department, declaring same-sex spouses cannot be compelled to testify against each other, should be eligible to file for bankruptcy jointly and are entitled to the same rights and privileges as federal prison inmates in opposite-sex marriages.
His call for restoring voting rights for ex-prisoners are part of what the attorney general calls his "Smart On Crime" program.
On Tuesday, Holder said that because of state laws that restrict former inmates' right to vote, about 10 percent of Floridians and 8 percent of people in Mississippi are disenfranchised. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said it would require voters to change the state's constitution.
On the positive side, Holder said 23 states, including Nebraska, Nevada, Texas and Washington state, have enacted recent improvements and Virginia has adopted a policy that automatically restores the voting rights of former prisoners with nonviolent convictions. The Virginia policy was carried out by order of the governor, but Holder said legislation is needed to make permanent change.
Kentucky is studying a proposed constitutional amendment that would put on the state ballot the question of whether to automatically restore voting rights for certain felons who've completed their sentences and probation. Championed by a Democratic lawmaker, the proposal also has drawn support from Republicans, including Paul.
A measure introduced in the Wyoming Legislature would allow restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons at the end of their parole and probation or sentence. State law lets people who have been convicted of a single nonviolent felony seek restoration of voting rights once they've waited five years after they served their sentence.
Nebraska restores voting rights to felons automatically, two years after they've finished their prison sentences and any parole or probation.