Hundreds of inmates awaiting trial in Lafayette Parish are eligible to vote but don’t exercise the right, something that’s the case throughout Louisiana, according to inmate advocates and voting and corrections officials.
The reasons are varied, advocates and jail officials say, including the transient nature of much of the jail population, the complexities of arranging to register and cast absentee ballots from behind bars and the fact that people sitting in jail have other priorities.
“They’re not really all that focused on voting,” said Rob Reardon, corrections director for the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. “What they really want is to get out. To go through the process of absentee voting, it’s not super complicated, but it does require a significant amount of effort.”
Voting rights do not extend to people serving time for felony convictions, although felons in Louisiana may have their voting rights restored after they serve their sentences and satisfy probation and parole requirements. But those who have not been convicted — even if arrested on a felony offense — still retain that right.
An estimated six in 10 adult inmates in the nation’s county (or parish) and city jails are awaiting trial, a rate that’s remained the same since 2005, according to the most recent 2014 calculations from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Reardon said pretrial detainees account for about 60 percent of the jail’s population, in keeping with federal estimates of the same.
In Lafayette Parish, where the jail population is about 900, that means some 540 pretrial detainees may be eligible to vote, not counting any other inmates serving sentences for misdemeanors.
But Charlene Meaux Menard, Lafayette Parish’s registrar of voters, said she’s never counted a ballot from the parish jail in the 10 years she’s held her post.
“I think they really don’t know that they’re eligible to vote,” Menard said.
In neighboring Acadia Parish, the Registrar of Voters Office counted only one ballot cast several years ago from the parish jail, marking the only inmate vote counted there in at least a decade.
Like Lafayette Parish, which is headed into a runoff election in the race to replace retiring four-term Sheriff Mike Neustrom, Acadia Parish inmates will live under a new leader overseeing the jail come 2016. But no one from inside the jail voted in the Oct. 24 primary.
Should an eligible inmate choose to exercise his right to vote, he would have to go through the same procedures as someone on the outside: registering more than a month before the election, requesting an absentee ballot from the local registrar at least five days before the election and then casting the vote, all of which can be done by mail.
But another problem lies in the transient nature of jail populations, as those who request absentee ballots may thereafter be released or convicted of a felony before voting. Some inmates may also have never voted while they were free, making the process even more foreign while considered in a jail setting.
First-time voters are also required to vote in person.
In Orleans Parish, where one inmate voted in the Oct. 24 primary, former prisoner Norris Henderson has worked for more than a decade organizing outreach efforts to educate offenders about their voting rights, whether they’ve completed their sentences or remain in jail.
Henderson created the nonprofit organization Voice of the Ex-Offender, or VOTE, after serving 27 years in prison. Educating inmates and ex-offenders on their civil rights should be a crucial aspect of the rehabilitation effort and may boost civic engagement upon release, especially when guided by someone who’s been in their position, he said.
“The biggest thing is that (inmates who vote) are really, really engaged and trying to do their part. The ones who actually get out, they actually stay engaged. And they start participating as regular, chronic voters,” Henderson said.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, R-Baton Rouge, has worked with Henderson in efforts to rework legislation that hinders an offender’s reintegration into society.
Smith said outside of Henderson’s grass-roots voter-education efforts, which are focused mostly in the New Orleans area, not enough is being done otherwise — both by sheriffs and voting authorities — to see that inmates understand their voting rights.
“Those who have never been to court, who are basically sitting in jail waiting to go to court, have a right to vote. But it’s not pushed anywhere,” Smith said.
Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, shared similar ideas on the matter, suggesting some mechanism should be in play to ensure inmates are aware of their voting rights.
“Those not guilty of anything and who can’t afford bond, or bond is out of place, they should have that right until that right is taken because of a conviction,” said Landry, a former State Police superintendent.
Along with the shifting number of pretrial detainees whose votes are lost each election, some 3 percent of the 3.54 million people of legal voting age in Louisiana are barred from casting a ballot because they’re in prison or on probation or parole for a felony sentence.
Like another 18 U.S. states, felony offenders in Louisiana lose their right to vote from the moment of conviction until they’ve completed their prison sentence, including any periods of parole and probation.
Every month, the state Department of Corrections submits lists of convicted felons to local registrars so they’re deemed ineligible to vote, and their names are cleared from the voter rolls. Only when their sentences are complete do they receive a state document verifying their voter eligibility, which must be submitted to the local Registrar of Voter’s Office in order to register or reregister to vote.
Some 36,890 felony offenders were in Louisiana Department of Corrections custody in its most recent offender census dated Oct. 28, a time frame that includes the Oct. 24 primary election, according to spokeswoman Pam Laborde. Another 72,806 offenders were under probation or parole supervision in September, the most recent time frame for which complete data is available.
That means about 109,600 state offenders were ineligible to vote in the most recent election — a number that exceeds the total populations of St. Martin and St. Mary parishes combined, or more than a quarter of the population of New Orleans. Two percent of that number comprises released prisoners leading an otherwise free life while under state supervision.
Smith, the Baton Rouge legislator, said the number of disenfranchised citizens includes people whose criminal histories are behind them.
“The problem is that in Louisiana, we have life parole. So there are individuals out there who are serving life parole, which means they will never be able to get a chance to get their right to vote back. I thought that was ridiculous,” Smith said.
Smith said she’s planning to reintroduce a bill in the next legislative session that would allow some felons on probation and parole to vote. A similar bill in 2014 stalled in committee, as legislators contended probation and parole is still part of the punishment for the act that landed an inmate the sentence in the first place, Smith said.
Landry, the New Iberia legislator, said he supports Smith’s efforts and is researching the matter on his own as part of a greater effort to reform Louisiana’s criminal justice laws.
“There has been some serious conversation throughout the state about our mass incarceration. People understand the budget issue, but they also understand the disenfranchisement of a group of people,” Landry said. “If we do not make some moves to make them whole again, chances are they can fall back in the same old rut.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.