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Previous story He fought for voting rights in Georgia – then found himself in trouble with the law Next story
Published on October 24, 2020 9:53 AM

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Tariq Baiyina has lobbied politicians, shaken hands with governors, set up a college program, and delivered dozens of sermons. Despite all this, the 42-year-old has never voted. And the reason is simple: since 2002, when he was convicted of a felony, he hasn?t been allowed.

Felony disenfranchisement is commonplace in the US, where 5.2 million people can?t vote, according to a new estimate from the Sentencing Project. While dozens of countries allow all people held in prison to vote, only two states, Vermont and Maine, as well as Washington DC, do so in the US. And in some states people lose their voting rights even after they have been released. In Georgia, where Baiyina was convicted, for example, the ban lasts through probation and parole, which can extend decades after serving time.

Black Americans, like Baiyina, are about 3.7 times more likely to lose their voting eligibility than other adults. But as the country begins to confront head-on issues of racism and inequality, more states are scaling back felony disenfranchisement. Earlier this year, Iowa became the final state to lift what had been a lifetime ban. In Florida, voters in 2018 approved a referendum restoring eligibility to people who are off probation or parole, though it was quickly dismantled by Republicans.

When Baiyina was convicted nearly two decades ago of armed robbery and carjacking, he wasn?t thinking about how people elected to run the government might affect his life. But soon he would become part of that movement, fighting to win power for himself and others punished by the legal system. In a few years, he would grow into a leading voice against felony disenfranchisement in Georgia. And for Baiyina, the cause is about more than just winning influence over who writes laws, it?s a personal quest to escape lingering punishment, and find citizenship. A quest that his own mistakes could quickly, and dramatically, interrupt.

Baiyina first became entangled in Georgia?s legal system in 2000. He lost his job, and needing money to pay for a plane ticket to visit his son in Rochester, New York, held up a cabbie, driving off with the car and about $100. He and an accomplice were arrested the same night.

This was the era when ?significantly increased sentence lengths? accounted for an ?unprecedented rise? in incarceration rates, according to a report from the National Academy of Sciences. Baiyina was convicted in 2002, and sentenced to 20 years in prison, and 15 years of probation. ?It was really foolish,? he said. ?I paid a hefty price for that crime. Still paying it.?

In prison, while reading in the law library, Baiyina began to realize the power of elections. He learned it was a Democratic state representative who had sponsored the bill requiring a mandatory minimum sentence for ...