The Mute Minority 

Some people pay their debt to society forever

Some people pay their debt to society forever

Reginald Lanier got mixed up with the wrong crowd a few years ago. It was 1991, his daughter had been hit by a car and he and his family had moved back home to Nashville from Atlanta to care for her. His father had died a few years before. He and his family had oppressive financial obligations, which led to problems in his marriage and, ultimately, divorce. For Lanier, a father of four, things were looking bleak.

That's when the East Nashville native got involved with some old friends from Maplewood High School who weren't exactly model citizens. Which would explain why Lanier had cocaine on him April 20, 1998, when police arrested him and charged him with intent to sell. He pled guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison, although he was released on probation after six months. Freed on a Friday, Lanier went back to work at his job the following Monday.

Since then, he's continued to work at a national concessions company. He's also gotten a second job at TSU, meaning he gets off in the evening at 9:30 and reports to his other job by 6:30 the next morning. He's finished his probation, paid his fees and now attends church at the Pentecostal Tabernacle on Clarksville Highway. By all accounts, Lanier has turned his life around.

But he can't vote in the upcoming election, and he may lose his job—all because he has a felony conviction on his record. And his situation isn't uncommon. Nationally, an estimated 4.7 million people are currently or permanently without voting rights because of a felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group. They report that fully 13 percent of black men in America are denied the right to vote. And of the 4.7 million nationally, 1.7 million are ex-offenders who have completed their sentences.

Reginald Lanier falls into that last group, although technically he's eligible to have his voting rights restored. That's because in Tennessee some ex-felons are permitted to vote—depending on when they committed their crime—but to regain the franchise, they have to file a court petition, then turn in the court order to the county election commission, which must in turn verify their eligibility with the state election commission. It's a convoluted process, and there aren't many former felons out there with good, cheap attorneys on hand.

"It's pretty complicated, unfortunately," says state election coordinator Brooke Thompson. He says it would be easier for all parties if the re-enfranchisement system, which is dictated by a confusing series of state laws, were streamlined—but he hastens to add he's not telling legislators how to do their jobs. "That's a policy decision they'll have to make."

Lanier was confused about the process and lacked the resources to make anything happen. He knew he wanted to vote. And then he found out he might lose his job of five years because of a new rule that bans former felons from working in certain jobs. "I live here in Nashville. My family's here. I really want to keep my job. I want to vote," he says. "It kind of sucks, you know. I made some bad choices."

Frustrated with a lack of help from the Davidson County Election Commission and the NAACP—he's quick to say the people at both organizations are very nice but just too busy—Lanier was almost at wit's end. He decided to call 92Q's Sharon Kay, host of the Sunday morning community affairs radio show "What's the 411?" Over the past couple of years, Kay has educated herself about the felon disenfranchisement issue and teamed up with the Nashville chapter of the NAACP, the Davidson County Election Commission and affiliates of the Nashville Bar Association to get the word out about voting rights restoration. Kay says she hears stories like Lanier's all the time. "This wears on people. It wears on them more than society realizes," she says. "If this man can't pay his child support, guess where he's going to be? On the street committing crimes."

Kay directed Lanier to Charles Grant, a local attorney who got involved with the former felon rights issue after speaking at a rally sponsored by the election commission, the NAACP and 92Q on Aug. 28. Since then, Grant and colleagues at the other community organizations have overseen 200 applications for restored voting rights. The enthusiastic response—which one election commission official says was the most activity she'd seen in 20 years—caught everyone off guard, eventually receiving attention in a nationally syndicated newspaper column. It's been a powerful movement of late in Nashville, but it's garnered little local attention outside the black community.

Grant says it's no surprise that people want their rights back. "These people are the scorned. By and large, they are without advocates, without a meaningful voice in the political process. They don't contribute to campaigns," he says. Besides, when it comes to making a living, it pays to have a clean record. "The fact is there just aren't many decent jobs you can get if you're a felon."

For Grant and advocates like Kelvin Jones, a Purcell administration official who heads the Napier-Looby Bar Association, restoring former felons' rights is logical. "It seems ironic that a system that seeks to rehabilitate them would punish them," Jones says. "You want them to reenter society and participate fully.... It only makes sense that they also be able to participate in the political process." Grant goes further. "It is absolutely mind-boggling to think that people who have served their time and have jobs and pay taxes can't vote, unless in some cases they file a lawsuit."

On Wednesday, Grant will appear in a local courtroom to argue a dozen more petitions for restoration. Lanier's won't be one of them. But Lanier plans to meet with Grant soon to talk about his case, and he's hopeful that a solid work record and support from his employer will enable him to keep his job and regain his good name.

In the meantime, Grant says that he and other advocates see all kind of voteless former felons. Among his clients are a 30-year master sergeant in the military, a former lawyer and a former teacher. "These are not just kids who got caught up selling crack on the corner at age 19," he says. "These are people who come from all walks of life and just made some bad decisions."

But, he notes, even the most low-life repugnant offenders deserve a vote—provided they've paid their debt to society. "I don't care who you are. To me, the franchise is almost sacred," he says. "If you're Gordon Liddy, I would support your right to vote."

Readers also liked…

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Recent Comments

  • Re: The Daily Links: Florida Crocodiles, Crying Jordan and xoJane

    • I ᴊᴜsᴛ ɢᴏᴛ ᴀ ɢʀᴇᴀᴛ Jᴀɢᴜᴀʀ XJ ᴀғᴛᴇʀ ʜᴀᴠɪɴɢ ᴍᴀᴅᴇ $9180 ᴛʜɪs-ᴘᴀsᴛ/ᴍᴏɴᴛʜ ᴀɴᴅ-ᴇᴠᴇɴ ᴍᴏʀᴇ ᴛʜᴀɴ,…

    • on May 24, 2016
  • Re: Do Polls Suggest It's Hillary Freakout Time?

    • I ᴊᴜsᴛ ɢᴏᴛ ᴀ ɢʀᴇᴀᴛ Jᴀɢᴜᴀʀ XJ ᴀғᴛᴇʀ ʜᴀᴠɪɴɢ ᴍᴀᴅᴇ $9180 ᴛʜɪs-ᴘᴀsᴛ/ᴍᴏɴᴛʜ ᴀɴᴅ-ᴇᴠᴇɴ ᴍᴏʀᴇ ᴛʜᴀɴ,…

    • on May 24, 2016
  • Re: Do Polls Suggest It's Hillary Freakout Time?

    • I ᴊᴜsᴛ ɢᴏᴛ ᴀ ɢʀᴇᴀᴛ Jᴀɢᴜᴀʀ XJ ᴀғᴛᴇʀ ʜᴀᴠɪɴɢ ᴍᴀᴅᴇ $9180 ᴛʜɪs-ᴘᴀsᴛ/ᴍᴏɴᴛʜ ᴀɴᴅ-ᴇᴠᴇɴ ᴍᴏʀᴇ ᴛʜᴀɴ,…

    • on May 24, 2016
  • Re: Do Polls Suggest It's Hillary Freakout Time?

    • I ᴊᴜsᴛ ɢᴏᴛ ᴀ ɢʀᴇᴀᴛ Jᴀɢᴜᴀʀ XJ ᴀғᴛᴇʀ ʜᴀᴠɪɴɢ ᴍᴀᴅᴇ $9180 ᴛʜɪs-ᴘᴀsᴛ/ᴍᴏɴᴛʜ ᴀɴᴅ-ᴇᴠᴇɴ ᴍᴏʀᴇ ᴛʜᴀɴ,…

    • on May 24, 2016
  • Re: Do Polls Suggest It's Hillary Freakout Time?

    • I ᴊᴜsᴛ ɢᴏᴛ ᴀ ɢʀᴇᴀᴛ Jᴀɢᴜᴀʀ XJ ᴀғᴛᴇʀ ʜᴀᴠɪɴɢ ᴍᴀᴅᴇ $9180 ᴛʜɪs-ᴘᴀsᴛ/ᴍᴏɴᴛʜ ᴀɴᴅ-ᴇᴠᴇɴ ᴍᴏʀᴇ ᴛʜᴀɴ,…

    • on May 24, 2016
  • More »

Sign Up! For the Scene's email newsletters





* required

All contents © 1995-2016 CityPress Communications LLC, 210 12th Ave. S., Ste. 100, Nashville, TN 37203. (615) 244-7989.
All rights reserved. No part of this service may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of CityPress Communications LLC,
except that an individual may download and/or forward articles via email to a reasonable number of recipients for personal, non-commercial purposes.
Powered by Foundation