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Following the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era brought about some of the most significant wins in the fight for the political empowerment of Black Americans. Alongside landmark legislation and constitutional amendments came the recognition that there could be no formal nor explicit voter disenfranchisement on the basis of race. However, the Fourteenth Amendment—which was intended to give previously enslaved individuals citizenship—provided a loophole, as it also explicitly allowed for these rights to be withheld if the individual were to be convicted of a crime. Not only did this provide a basis for felon disenfranchisement laws—laws that strip away the voting rights of individuals with past criminal convictions—but it also essentially protected these types of laws from constitutional challenge.
Contributing to the ability of felon disenfranchisement laws to oppress Black individuals is the historically racist phenomenon of wrongful convictions. Wrongful convictions are inextricably linked to race, as innocent Black individuals are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of violent crimes than innocent white individuals. Black individuals are overrepresented at every level of the criminal justice system, but nowhere more so than in the percentage of known wrongful convictions. United by their goal of political oppression, wrongful convictions and felon disenfranchisement laws are irrefutably reflective of America’s racist past and present.
Historically, America has continually sought the political disempowerment of Black Americans. This most evidently took form in the shape of Jim Crow laws—a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. Enacted just as Black Americans had gained voting rights nationwide, these laws were primarily focused on keeping Black America politically oppressed. Poll taxes, literacy tests, all-white primaries, grandfather clauses, fraud, and intimidation all attempted to maintain white supremacy in the electoral process by keeping Black Americans from accessing the polls. Essentially, these laws were another tool used by white supremacists to maintain the racial power dynamic of the time.
Wrongful criminal convictions of Black Americans has become a modern and covert tool for white supremacists to hinder the political empowerment of Black individuals. Although white individuals can be victims of wrongful imprisonment, Black individuals are undoubtedly disproportionately affected. Specifically, Black individuals are only 13% of the American population, yet they comprise 53% of the exonerees listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. While there are a plethora of factors contributing to wrongful imprisonment, misconduct by government officials, false testimony, and all-white juries are among the most common.
A recent study showed that Black defendants were most impacted by officials’ misconduct. Among cases involving Black exonerees, the rate of misconduct was 57%. The same study confirmed that prosecutors and police officers committed misconduct at comparable rates: prosecutors in 30% of cases and police at 34%, indicating the presence of race-based corruption at multiple levels of the U.S. Justice System. False testimony, another contributing factor to wrongful convictions of Black individuals, also illustrates this type of corruption.
Historically, innocent Black men are significantly more likely to be convicted of crimes due to false testimony; more than half of all wrongful convictions can be traced back to a false allegation or false testimony. And, because Black individuals represent nearly half of all exonerations, the burden of false allegations falls disproportionately on them.
All-white juries have also historically been a source of corruption leading to the unjust imprisonment of Black individuals. It was only 85 years ago that the Supreme Court decided in Norris v. Alabama (1935) that the systematic exclusion of Black individuals on juries denies fair trials. Regardless of the precedent set by this case, we still see nearly all-white juries convict Black men. Recent cases involving Black men garnering national attention, such as the Julius Jones and Ahmaud Arbery cases, have been decided by juries made up of eleven white jurors, with only one juror identifying as a person of color.
Through wrongful conviction, Black individuals can not only be literally removed from society through imprisonment, but also potentially disenfranchised for the rest of their lives. Between high rates of wrongful incarceration of Black individuals and felon disenfranchisement laws, the U.S. risks allowing white supremacists to create a social condition comparable to slavery. Moreso, unlike many other Jim Crow-era laws, laws with discriminatory implications have persisted into the present day. 48 states still ban individuals with felony convictions from voting. In 2022, approximately 4.6 million Americans remained ineligible to vote due to felon disenfranchisement laws. And, similar to wrongful convictions, the distribution of individuals affected by felon disenfranchisement laws is unsurprisingly extremely racially disproportionate. 38% of all Americans who have been stripped of their voting rights due to conviction histories are Black, yet Black Americans only represent 13% of the population.
Our nation’s history shows that white Americans have utilized the criminal justice system to intentionally disadvantage and oppress Black Americans. Although we have made tremendous strides towards equality, the current state of the nation is still disturbing. In 2022, justice continues to be subverted as America continues to contribute to its longstanding history of racial discrimination. We must remember this and demand change.