The wheels of justice aren’t moving slowly in the Tar Heel state nowadays, but they are grinding down hopes for a truly representational democracy. Denying residents with felony convictions out on parole or probation their voting right is one of the latest ways the state Supreme Court has disenfranchised members of the electorate. And it’s a decision with wide-ranging implications.    

Consider: the Sentencing Project recently made public a report that found restoring rights to convicted felons who have paid their criminal debts to society advances public safety.

On April 25, the Washington, DC-based nonprofit published “Increasing Public Safety By Restoring Voting Rights”, which touts safer communities when people regain the right to vote.

Durham County’s progressive, reform-minded district attorney Satana Deberry is not surprised by the Sentencing Project’s report findings.

Voting connects to public safety because people who have a stake in their community and the future are less likely to break the law,” Deberry wrote in an email to the INDY. “This engagement also results in laws and policies that are more responsive to the people directly impacted by them. In other words, when you vote, you do better.”

The report also appeared to affirm a ruling from a three-judge panel in Wake County’s superior court last year that determined a 1970s law—barring those who have yet to complete the terms of their probation or supervised parole for felony convictions, of which there were then more than 56,000 North Carolinians—violated the constitutional rights of those residents. 

In the case, Durham attorney Daryl Atkinson and others argued successfully for the plaintiff Community Success Initiative, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that lobbies at the North Carolina General Assembly on behalf of justice-impacted residents. 

Atkinson is co-director of Forward Justice, a nonpartisan law, policy and strategy center in Durham that partners with nonprofits to advance the causes of racial, social, and economic justice throughout the South. He was ebullient after successfully arguing the case, Community Success Initiative v. [NC House Speaker Timothy] Moore.

“This landmark decision is the largest expansion of voting rights in North Carolina since the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Atkinson said in a Forward Justice press release last year, shortly after the release of the court decision that restored voting rights for thousands of residents, disproportionately African American, in July.

“We applaud the majority opinion’s legal conclusion that North Carolina’s felony disenfranchisement scheme violates the Equal Protection and Free Election clauses of our state’s constitution by discriminating against African Americans in intent and effect, thereby frustrating the will of North Carolina voters.” 

Atkinson was not available for comment this week but issued a statement in a press release.

“Our clients had 276 days of freedom and equal access to democracy—a period of unprecedented inclusion in North Carolina’s democracy,” Atkinson said in a Justice Forward release on April 28, the day the court handed down its decision. “Today the newly seated North Carolina Supreme Court silenced the voices of more than 56,000 people — disproportionately Black voters — living in communities all across [the state], paying taxes, an equal voice in our democracy.”

Despite the odds, Atkinson said in the release that he’s undeterred, and points to the General Assembly, saying the “ball is in their court” to resolve the issue.

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