Baltimore resident Nicole Hanson couldn’t vote in elections during the three years she spent on probation, after finishing a term in prison.
It was a heartbreaking experience, she said, because voting is part of her family’s culture. She remembers her grandmother and mother taking the whole family to the polls when she was a child. “The fact that I wasn’t able to engage in the process for my children,” Hanson says, “words cannot describe the feeling.”
During those years, Hanson says, she encouraged others to vote. “Even when I couldn’t vote, I was sending five, 10, 15 people to the polls.”
Hanson’s voting rights were restored about a year ago, when she finished her probation. Today, she’s the board president of Out For Justice, a nonprofit organization that promotes criminal justice reform and the rights of formerly incarcerated Maryland residents.
Thanks to a law that took effect in March, people previously convicted of felonies can now vote in Maryland without having to complete parole or probation.
Hanson and other advocates for former-felons’ rights are registering “the reentry community” to vote, educating them on the political process, and motivating them to actually go to the polls. Because people released from prison face constant obstacles in employment, housing and financial security, activists see this as a way to teach them how to affect the changes they seek and hold their representatives accountable.
Etta Myers is director at the Maryland Justice Project. Photo courtesy Maryland Justice Project.
Out for Justice is part of a broad effort to support Maryland’s reentry community in voting. Staffers with the Maryland Justice Project carry voting registration forms with them everywhere, co-founder Monica Cooper says. And the group is working with Out For Justice on a survey to find out who among the reentry community is voting in the five zip codes where former offenders comprise a significant percentage of the population. Organizers set up pop-up voter registration booths in places with high foot traffic, at probation offices, and at community events where they educate the public on the political process—even provide instructions on how to Google state and local representatives.
Because they’ve been disengaged from democracy while in detention, or even before then, some are learning for the first time about their local representatives and how they make decisions. Those newly able to vote need to make informed choices by learning about government and the political process itself, Hanson says.
“We’re really dedicated to teaching individuals the process of voting,” she says.
Not only that, but Out For Justice wants this voting bloc to be seen as powerful. New voters are taken straight to the halls of power and shuttled to the state capitol in Annapolis for rallies and meetings with lawmakers. They pass out literature to legislators, distribute talking points, and make themselves visible as new constituents.
Now that lawmakers have restored their right to vote, Out For Justice wants to demonstrate that the newly enfranchised—up to 40,000 Maryland residents—are exercising their voices to the fullest and will help decide whether these legislators keep their jobs.
When legislators head to work, “they see us,” Hanson says. “They see this huge group of returning citizens.”
Back in Baltimore, volunteers phone lawmakers on issues unique to the reentry community and hold letter-writing and email campaigns.
Voting is just one part of creating a more equitable world for ex-inmates, who also face barriers to employment, housing, and education.
Another problem ex-offenders and their advocates want to address is expungement of records for unjust arrests and charges, in light of new data.
A recent federal report shows the scale of that problem. In the wake of the death of Freddie Gray last year at the hands of Baltimore police officers, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the city’s police agency that found it “makes stops, searches and arrests without the required justification” and “unlawfully subject(s) African Americans to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests.”
“Those convictions are now on the records of thousands and thousands of people in the city,” Hanson says.
So former offenders support the expansion of state laws on expungement—a process that allows crimes to be erased from a person’s record.
The state made progress with the Second Chance Act of 2015, which allowed nonviolent misdemeanors to be wiped from offenders’ public records. But Out For Justice and several Baltimore politicians call for the expansion of those laws so that former inmates can obtain easier access to housing and jobs.
Additionally, criminal records can prevent former felons from obtaining a professional license or certification. For example, women coming out of prison who want to become a certified nursing assistant or physician’s assistant, Hanson says, need certifications that require background checks. That can put them at a disadvantage.
The Maryland Justice Project also seeks to expand to the entire state Baltimore’s 2014 “Ban the Box” ordinance, which requires that employers not ask about a job-hunter’s criminal history in job applications.
Additionally, the Maryland Justice Project is collaborating with teachers and religious communities in the Open Society Institute’s Solutions Summit, a public event in which residents will vote on priorities for the newly elected mayor and city council.
Greg Carpenter is one of the ex-offenders whose voting rights were restored by the law that went into effect in March.
Now 63 years old, he spent 20 years in prison, but has been home for 21. He now runs a bakery, 2 a.m. Bakery:Where the Dough Rises, where he trains residents returning from prison who have an interest in baking and culinary arts.
Because he was on indefinite probation, this past primary election was Carpenter’s first chance to vote since he first went to prison in his 20s. He’s eager to vote in his first general election in November.
“One of the most responsible acts for an individual who participates in society is to vote,” he says. “It’s a powerful thing for me.” He’s now encouraging others like him to vote, but faces the challenge of convincing people that their vote will make a difference.
“Folks like to think it don’t count, it don’t matter,” Carpenter says. “No matter what you think about your vote … it’s going to have an impact on something or somebody.”