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States should lift life bans on voting for ex-felons: Attorney General

Prison inmates stand in line as they prepare to dance in opposition of violence against women as they participate in a One Billion Rising ev
Prison inmates stand in line as they prepare to dance in opposition of violence against women as they participate in a One Billion Rising ev

By David Ingram

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. states should repeal laws that restrict for life the voting rights of ex-felons because the laws prevent former prison inmates from successfully reentering society, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday in the latest Obama administration push on civil rights.

In a speech at Georgetown University Law Center, Holder said that former prisoners whose rights are restored are less likely to find themselves in court again. According to a preliminary 2011 study from Florida that he cited, the recidivism rate was 11 percent for ex-felons whose civil rights were restored there, compared to 33 percent for ex-felons overall.

"These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive," Holder said at a legal conference. "By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood - increase the likelihood - they will commit future crimes."

People convicted of serious crimes in state and federal courts usually must give up various rights that otherwise are guaranteed to Americans, such as the rights to hold public office and serve on a jury. They may be reinstated later, though sometimes through a complicated process.

Eleven states restrict voting rights to varying degrees after a felon has completed his or her sentence, Holder said.

About 5.8 million Americans are barred from voting because of current or previous felony convictions, and a disproportionate number are racial minorities, according to a report in October from the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights group. In Florida, about 10 percent of the voting-age population is affected, the report said.

Holder said his Justice Department would work with state legislators to prod them to change their laws. He gave no indication the department would go so far as to sue over the laws, as the department did last year when it sued North Carolina and Texas over voting laws that require people to show photo identification before casting a ballot.

(Editing by Howard Goller)

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