FRANKFORT, Ky. (WHAS11) – An estimated 180,000 Kentuckians convicted of low level felonies could be on a pathway to restored rights thanks to an Executive Order signed Tuesday by Governor Steve Beshear.
Felons could have the right to vote and run for office but not own a firearm or sit on a jury.
To be eligible, felons must not have been convicted of a violent or sex crime, bribery or treason.
"I have authority to do it right now any way I want to and only the Governor does have that authority in Kentucky," insisted Governor Beshear as about two dozen supporters cheered.
He claims to have the constitutional authority to streamline the process for some convicted Kentucky felons to gain restored rights. The criteria outlines that offenders must have serve out their sentence and paid back any restitution and not be facing other charges.
The Department of Corrections will give certificates to those released from the system from now on. Those previously in the system would file with their parole officer or online. Governor Beshear insists the DOC is prepared for what may be a wave of applicants because they've been planning this executive order for months.
Beshear said he waited to announce the plan until after the election because he did not want it to become a political issue on either side of the aisle. He also felt forced to act because lawmakers had not passed a bill that would address what he saw as a significant system failure.
"We ignore the fact that they have paid for their crimes and have served out their sentences," he said of the felons impacted by the Executive Order. "We don't even ask if they've turned the corner on the past and are trying to move on to more productive lives. This disenfranchisement makes no sense."
Michael Haiser attended the announcement. Convicted of a felony years ago, Haiser says he can't wait apply for a certificate stating his rights were reinstated.
"Today! I have the application I my briefcase right now", Haiser said while answering the question about when he'll apply.
Reverend Alonzo Malone waited years for this day.
"I was convicted of writing a bad check eleven years ago and I am still affected by it today. I can't vote. Job opportunities have slipped past us," said Reverend Malone.
Governor Beshear suggested that the legislature ask voters to decide the issue and amend the State Constitution so no governor can change the process.
You can read the full Executive Order here: http://apps.sos.ky.gov/Executive/Journal/execjournalimages/2015-MISC-2015-0871-242277.pdf
Reaction to the decision came from across the political spectrum.
A spokesperson for Governor-elect Matt Bevin wrote:
"Governor-Elect Bevin has said many times that the restoration of voting rights for certain offenders is the right thing to do. We were notified of the Executive Order by Governor Beshear's staff only a few minutes before the announcement and were not provided a copy of the Executive Order until after the press conference. The Executive Order will be evaluated during the transition period."
The Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission wrote:
"Today, Governor Steve Beshear issued an Executive Order automatically restoring voting rights to former felons who have successfully completed their sentences. This Order excludes persons presently convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes, bribery or treason.
This action brings Kentucky into line with forty-six other states that automatically restore felons' voting rights when their sentences are complete.
We wholeheartedly agree with the Governor when he said, "Once an individual has served his or her time and paid all restitution, society expects them to reintegrate into their communities and become law-abiding and productive citizens. A key part of that transition is the right to vote." We believe that society benefits when former offenders are reinstated in the fullness of citizenship."
The Louisville and Lexington Urban Leagues released this joint statement:
"Today's announcement by Governor Steve Beshear marks a new beginning in the lives of thousands of Kentuckians. This executive order will allow many of those individuals who have paid their debt to society to once again enjoy many of the basic rights that serve as the founding principles of our country. The restoration of civil rights is also a restoration of hopes and dreams for many within the Commonwealth and we applaud Governor Beshear for his support and willingness to take action on this issue."
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer released the following statement:
"Voting is one of the most fundamental rights given to Americans. I am thankful Governor Beshear has corrected this injustice allowing thousands of non-violent felons, who have served out their sentences, the opportunity to have their voices heard."
Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Gerald A. Neal wrote:
"Having carried legislation to restore the voting rights of ex-offenders for many years, I am very pleased that we have moved forward with this issue. Governor Beshear should be congratulated.
"Restoring the voting rights of ex-offenders enhances the credibility of the justice system in the commonwealth. Kentucky now joins all but a few states in discarding this reactionary, useless restriction. Currently, 7.4 percent of all Kentuckians cannot vote because of a felony conviction – a rate three times the national average. Sadly, Kentucky has one of the highest rates of African American disenfranchisement in the county at 22.3 percent. That rate is nearly three times the national African American disenfranchisement rate of 7.7 percent. Governor Beshear's action today will allow these ex-offenders to feel as if they are truly a part of our society again. This will promote rehabilitation and reintegration into the community.
"I am very pleased to celebrate with many other Kentuckians and thank Governor Beshear for moving our state in the right direction."
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes issued this statement:
"I welcome and applaud Governor Beshear's order restoring voting rights to non-violent felony offenders who have paid their debt to society. As I have advocated throughout my tenure as Kentucky's chief election official, a felony sentence should not equal a life sentence of silence.
"We've made great strides to improve our elections in the Commonwealth and, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, this order is another important step forward. But our work is not finished.
"We must move beyond executive authority and incorporate these vital changes into Kentucky's Constitution. I will continue to champion automatic restoration of rights for non-violent felony offenders, and I stand ready to work side-by-side with the General Assembly and Gov.-elect Bevin to make that happen."
Kentucky State Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer wrote:
"Gov Beshear is thumbing his nose at the constitution on his way out the door. He does not have the authority to restore voting rights by a blanket executive order. That change requires a constitutional amendment."
Here's a link at which you can apply to have your rights restored: http://corrections.ky.gov/communityinfo/Pages/Restoration-of-Civil-Rights.aspx