THURMAN — The saga of John Haskell’s bid to retake his old job as town supervisor, from which he was expelled in 2009 after a felony corruption conviction, is deeply seeded with the nation’s complicated racial history.
Haskell is white and from a small, rural town.
But, it’s a court order, “a relief from civil disabilities,” that returned his right to vote and thereby, according to state and local election officials, his ability to challenge incumbent Supervisor Evelyn Wood.
And it’s expanding access to these rights-restoring documents that advocates for minority groups and the rights of convicted criminals see as a necessary step to ending centuries of racial inequity.
A promise of a future relief from civil disability is sometimes used by prosecutors seeking good behavior from convicts, said Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan.
“We say, ‘Come back in a year and, if you’ve been a good boy, we’ll talk,’ ” Hogan said.
It’s widely assumed a felony conviction means an across-the-board loss of civil rights. A relief from civil disabilities mechanism has, for decades, put guns back in the hands of hunters and restored voting rights.
The decision to grant a defendant’s request falls to the court or state Parole Board, but prosecutors can, and often do, dispute the application.
Federal, state and local courts and state parole boards are also showing greater leniency in the face of record-high arrests and swelling prisons.
The state Parole Board granted 4,500 reliefs from civil disability orders in 2012, up from 1,300 in 2009, according to statistics released Wednesday by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
Robert Neuweiler’s rights were restored by a local court following a conviction of selling cocaine, allowing him to receive a liquor license and open the Messenger House bar in Glens Falls.
Another person who had her rights restored is Glens Falls City Assessor Lauren Stack, whose employment is contingent on the Florida Parole Board’s action to return her civil rights, which were stripped after convictions in the 1990s on drug and robbery charges.
Hogan recalled a recent case in which a registered nurse, convicted of stealing and selling prescription drugs, sought her rights back so she could work for a local nursing home, where a lot of drugs are stored, without even having to inform the prospective employer.
The prosecution successfully fought that application.
“Would you want a pedophile working at a child day care center?” Hogan said.
The 1870 passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not the end of disenfranchisement for American blacks, said Marc Mauer, executive director of Washington-based think-tank, The Sentencing Project.
It’s this national trend toward greater access to civil rights for convicts, with a foundation firmly resting on the complexities of racial inequality, that’s driving an uptick of convicted felons regaining their rights.
Haskell’s court order returned all his rights, but includes a clause barring him from “seeking or holding” public office. The document cannot return a convict’s right to “retain or be eligible for public office,” according to a State Parole Board legal directive issued in June.
State and local elections officials have concluded that because Haskell can vote, he has the right to run for office, under state law.
Wood, the incumbent Haskell is trying to oust, said Wednesday she’ll file a lawsuit by the end of the week challenging that opinion, arguing that Haskell’s bid is illegal and he couldn’t assume office if he does win in November.
Haskell said Tuesday that Wood is merely “nitpicking.”
Haskell would need an additional “certificate of good conduct” from the state Parole Board before actually assuming office, according to state law. He has applied for that document, an election official said.
Haskell was convicted in 2009 of defrauding the government after changing Town Board minutes, granting himself a right of way to landlocked property he bought on the cheap.
The states have generally moved toward lessening their restrictive policies that, in the past, essentially barred felons from participation in society and made employment almost impossible, Mauer said. Twenty-three states have somehow streamlined the application or approval process in the past decade for convicts seeking the return of their civil rights after their sentences are completed, The Sentencing Project reports.
The Jim Crow South used literacy exams to keep African-Americans from casting votes for up to a century after the Civil War, and black men are exponentially more likely to get convicted of a felony than their white counterparts.
To this day, it’s the American justice system, which disproportionately convicts young black men on felony charges, that has taken the right to vote from nearly 6 million citizens nationwide, The Sentencing Project analysis concludes.
“We’re getting to the point where the numbers are so high that national elections are now being impacted,” Mauer said.
While one in 40 American adults are disenfranchised because of felony convictions, one in 13 blacks can’t vote, even though they’ve completed their sentences, according to a study released in June by Mauer’s organization.
“We’ve used the criminal justice system to affect who can vote in this country,” said Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, noting New York has its own relatively recent history of racial disenfranchisement through prosecution.
The number of disenfranchised felons in the U.S. has tripled since 1970, The Sentencing Project report concludes.
The New York City Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, often targeting young black men, has been lambasted in recent months, and has been labeled as racial profiling by detractors. Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed two bills Tuesday that would have placed limits on NYPD’s use of the procedure, according to The Associated Press.
New York’s law on the restoration of voting rights, which allows a convicted felon to apply to either the local court or the state Parole Board for his or her rights and generally returns them after parole has been served anyway, are moderate by national standards. Felons in Vermont and Maine never lose their ability to participate in elections, but it essentially takes a clemency declaration from gubernatorial-appointed parole boards in many Southern states, including Florida, for a convict to get his or her voting rights back.
Those 11 staunchest states often keep a felon from the voting booth for his or her entire life, Mauer said.
New York’s courts and the Parole Board can return some rights, including gun ownership for a hunter convicted
of a white-collar crime, or can issue a sweeping decree, returning all a felon’s civil liberties.
And, in a nation with a complicated racial history and an increasing focus on convict rehabilitation, pro-rights advocates are hopeful an increasing number of post-sentence felons will be actively participating in democracy.
Green said progress has been slow, but Mauer adds it is happening.
“Except for a few cases, the general trend is toward progress,” Mauer said of the states.