By, Nazgol Ghandnoosh Source: The Sentencing Project
North Carolina Court Re-Enfranchises People on Probation and Parole
The Wake County Superior Court overturned North Carolina’s voting ban for people serving felony probation, parole, and post-release supervision, joining 22 other states that allow all citizens who are not incarcerated to vote. This ruling re-enfranchises 56,000 North Carolinians—42% of whom are African American. In Community Success Initiative v. Moore, the court concluded that North Carolina’s voting restriction violated the state’s constitution, “both because it discriminates against African Americans and because it denies all people on felony supervision the fundamental right to vote.”
The trial included expert testimony from professors including Vernon Burton of Clemson University and Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina—experts in American history and political science, respectively. Burton explained that felony disenfranchisement was introduced as an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution in 1875, with the “overarching aim … to instill white supremacy and particularly to disenfranchise African American voters.” The amendment came as a part of a backlash against African American suffrage—coinciding with constitutional provisions banning interracial marriage and requiring segregation in public schools. Baumgartner noted that in 2019, African Americans represented 21% of the state’s voting-age population, but 42% of those disenfranchised under the law. In an amicus brief, The Sentencing Project argued that the law unduly muted the voices of Black North Carolinians in public affairs by amplifying the hardship that the criminal justice system disproportionately visits upon Black Americans.
State Supreme Courts Lack Racial Diversity
In nearly half the country, state supreme courts are all white. Twenty-two states have no supreme court justices of color, including 11 states where people of color represent over 20% of the population, reports the Brennan Center for Justice. According to Brennan’s report on State Supreme Court Diversity, there are no Black justices in 28 states, no Latinx justices in 40 states, no Asian American justices in 44 states, and no Native American justices in 47 states. While people of color make up nearly 40% of the U.S. population, they represent only 17% of justices in state supreme courts.
State supreme court justices have immense influence over the populations they represent. State courts hear 95% of all cases filed in the United States, and state supreme courts set precedents for lower courts. This year, the Delaware Supreme Court published the nation’s first detailed guide on increasing judicial diversity. The guide traces the current racial disparities among state supreme court justices to a lack of legal and judicial diversity: “fewer people of color go to college, which means that fewer still will attend law school and become attorneys and judges.” The report recommends a system-wide approach to addressing these disparities, including improving K-12 civics education, creating mentorship programs for attorneys of color, requiring attorneys to participate in implicit bias training, and increasing outreach efforts to attorneys from diverse backgrounds to pursue judicial careers.
While the 2020 reform has mitigated the law’s disproportionate effect on people of color and individuals living in low-income neighborhoods, nearly 400 already-sentenced individuals were left out. Some of the key aspects of the 2020 reform include reducing the size of drug-free school zones from 1,000 to 500 feet and also eliminating the use of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in the school zone, leaving it to the court’s discretion on whether to use the sentencing enhancement.