How much freedom do we deny?

Published 9:03 pm Thursday, September 18, 2008

The ceasing of a voter registration drive for inmates by Alabama Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen has fueled a debate over prisoners’ voting rights. And ambiguity in state law hasn’t helped, either.

Allen stopped the drive Thursday under pressure from the Alabama Republican Party, the Associated Press reported yesterday.

In a letter to state Republican Party Chairman Mike Hubbard, Allen said individuals conducting the program “were not doing anything for the inmates that they could not do themselves by simply contacting the Secretary of State’s Office for the voter registration postcard.”

Despite the apparent legitimacy of the drive, Allen, who was appointed by Gov. Bob Riley, claims he decided to stop it because of a section in the state code that prohibits using state-owned property to promote or advance candidates for election.

“While it is not clear that assisting voters to register would violate those provisions, I cannot expose departmental employees to that possibility,” he wrote.

Two days earlier, AP had reported that a coalition of groups led by a community activist, the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, began registering inmates this week. Glasgow, a Democrat from Dothan who served time for robbery and drug convictions, said the state is illegally denying people the right to vote.

The issue is a question Alabama state law has yet to fully answer. How much freedom should convicted felons be denied, and which crimes are severe enough to warrant it?

State law prohibits felons convicted of “crimes of moral turpitude” from voting unless they have had their rights restored, but does not define such crimes. Court opinions have said they include murder, robbery, rape plus some lesser offenses.

Glasgow’s drive concentrated on prisoners convicted of drug possession, which an attorney general’s opinion issued in 2005 did not define as a crime of moral turpitude.

A clear legal definition would not stop the debate, but it would at least clear up a few gray areas.