A national association of probation and parole officers has come to the aid of a group of Louisiana felons challenging a four-decade-old state law that prohibits felons on probation and parole from voting.

State District Judge Tim Kelley, of Baton Rouge, reluctantly upheld the 1976 law last year, saying he agreed with the plaintiffs but could not bend the law.

A group called Voice of the Ex-Offender and several individual plaintiffs appealed the judge's ruling to the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, where the American Probation and Parole Association filed documents this month in support of the plaintiffs.

Last month, law professors from four Louisiana universities filed papers at the appellate court calling for the reversal of Kelley's ruling and asking the court to "protect the constitutional right to vote for the non-incarcerated, including probationers and parolees."

In its own court papers, the American Probation and Parole Association argues that restoring the right to vote to ex-offenders who have been released from incarceration is of critical importance to APPA's mission of improving parole and probation systems to better integrate offenders back into society.

"Providing released offenders with the right to vote gives them an important stake in the community, allows them to reintegrate as full-fledged members of the community rather than second-class citizens, (and) allows them to teach their children the importance of voting ..." the association contends in its 1st Circuit filing.

The challenged 1976 state law is preventing roughly 71,000 felons on probation and parole in Louisiana from voting.

The 1974 Louisiana Constitution forbids people "under an order of imprisonment" for the conviction of a felony from voting. The '76 law expanded that definition, saying felons on probation and parole cannot vote.

The state argues that felons on probation or parole remain under an order of imprisonment because they can be sent back to prison if they violate the terms of their probation or parole.

The APPA claims that argument is misplaced.

"The Secretary of State argues that the State can prevent post-prison parolees and probationers from voting because they remain in the `legal custody' of the State and are subject to `custodial supervision at any time,' but the same is true of people who are on probation without serving any jail time. In both situations, a violation of the conditions of their probation may lead to a period of imprisonment," the association says.

The APPA adopted a formal resolution in 2007 advocating for the full "restoration of voting rights upon completion of an offender's prison sentence" and for "no loss of voting rights while on community supervision."

The association alleges the Louisiana law is "profoundly counterproductive" and serves no legitimate or compelling state interest.

"It makes their reintegration into society more difficult, increases recidivism and social ostracism, (and) lowers community participation in the political process ..." the group claims.

One of the plaintiffs in the case is 67-year-old Vietnam War veteran Kenneth Johnston, who has been out of prison for 23 years after serving 22 years in a 1972 killing. He will be on parole for the rest of his life.

"Despite serving his country in war, starting his own paralegal agency, and staying out of prison for 23 years, under the Louisiana statutes at issue, Mr. Johnston will never again have the opportunity to vote," the APPA states.

The association says the restoration of voting rights for persons on probation or parole "sends a message that they have repaid their debt to society and are being welcomed back as valuable members of their communities."

Editor's note: This story was updated after publication to correct the criminal background of Kenneth Johnston. 

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