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VICTIMS' RIGHTS ACTIVISTS SPEAK OUT

That's not how Janice Grieshaber sees it. To her people who kill deserve little sympathy. Her daughter Jenna was killed in 1997 just one week before her graduation from nursing school.

"It happened in her apartment in Albany. She was coming home from her classes...It was someone who lived in her apartment building and was watching her and following her," recalls Grieshaber.

The killer, who was caught as he tried to leave town, turned out to be a man on parole.

After her daughter's death, Grieshaber was instrumental in an effort to strengthen New York's parole laws, making it tougher for felons to get out of jail for good behavior. Today she runs the Jenna Foundation for Non-Violence in Syracuse. She says that violent criminals incur a debt that takes a lifetime to repay.

"There's no question in my mind. I don't believe they should be allowed to vote," argues Grieshaber, "they should not have that decision making capability. I don't want these people having access to making changes in my life. They have already done that."

Grieshaber makes a distinction between violent and non-violent crimes. It's a common distinction. Some have even tried to convince Janai Nelson of the Legal Defense Fund that she would have a stronger case if she brought suit only on behalf of non-violent criminals. Nelson remains unswayed.

"Regardless of whether or not you're a good American, a law abiding American, a PC American," replies Nelson, "really the right to vote does not vary based on our different ideas about who you should be and what we would ideally like you to be as a person in this country."

WHOSE OPINION COUNTS?

Impact is a non-profit arts organization for young people in Harlem. Jazz Hayden wants to talk about voting rights with Impact founder Jamal Joseph.

"We've been friends for 30 years, says Hayden, introducing Joseph. "He teaches screenwriting at Columbia…"

Like Hayden, Joseph is an ex- prisoner who is unhappy about the state law that keeps both prisoners and parolees from voting in New York. He says prisoners are still members of society.

"So if I am a father and I am working in the prison and sending money home to take care of my children," asks Joseph, "doing the best I can, have I no say in redistricting and education, health care and all those crucial, crucial issues?"

What makes the problem even worse Joseph explains, is that most of the people in prison in the state come from New York City neighborhoods, yet more than 90 percent of them are incarcerated upstate. So the census counts them as upstate residents. This means less state and federal representation for communities like Harlem and fewer dollars for much needed services - like affordable housing. Joseph argues that when prisoners come home, as most do, and go back to work and still can't vote - this, he says, is 'taxation without representation'.

A world away from the streets of Harlem, in the far suburbs of Washington, are the offices of Roger Clegg, an attorney with the conservative think-tank, Center for Equal Opportunity.

"We don't let everybody vote in the U.S.," says Clegg, "even some people who pay taxes. I mean children frequently pay taxes if their income is above a certain amount...People who get to vote should be held to a minimum standards of loyalty and trustworthiness that we require."

Clegg believes that felons who ask for their right to vote to be reinstated should be handled on a case by case basis-after his or her sentence is completed. But the grievance process in some states requires getting a pardon from a busy governor; or getting a legislator to pass a law on your behalf. In Florida alone, more than 100,000 people are waiting for their applications to be reviewed.

In the end, Clegg says, the debate about whether felons should vote is a waste of energy.

"And what the NAACP should be doing, rather than complaining about the fact that a disproportionate number of criminals are African Americans," says Clegg, "is that they ought to be figuring out what can we do to keep such a high proportion of African American kids, particularly African American young men from getting involved in crime."

There are more people in American prisons today than in any other time in history. One in twenty men can expect to spend part of their life in prison.


Next: THE IMPACT OF THE ROCKEFELLER LAWS