After Akeem Sims spent 11 months and his 30th birthday in a Pennsylvania correctional facility for a felony conviction for drug possession with the intent to deliver, the Philadelphia resident said voting was the last thing he was concerned about upon his release in 2007.
“During [Barack] Obama's first election, I didn't vote, because I didn’t trust the government and politics,” Sims, 46, told Yahoo News. “It didn't really feel like they represented the ‘we’ that I represented or helped me in my situation. So I didn’t feel a need to be associated or involved.”
In fact, Sims, who described himself as being “heavy in the streets,” recalled that he was so discouraged by his lack of job options due to his record that he was tempted to revert to dealing cocaine to take care of his grandmother, who had had to work two jobs to provide for Sims and his siblings. His mother and father were in and out of jail fighting drug addiction.
“There were definitely a lot of times that I considered going back to my former lifestyle, especially when it got to the height of being denied a job at Walmart,” Sims reflected.
The lack of societal resources and the stigma he faced, as someone who had been incarcerated and was trying to reintegrate into the community, compounded Sims's distrust for the government and the political system.
“I came home and got a certificate in accounting, because while I was incarcerated, that is what I found I was passionate enough about and made the commitment to, so I wouldn't resort back to old habits and lifestyles. So, pursuing accounting and having a felony conviction for selling drugs was so challenging and extremely difficult — almost defeating me,” Sims continued.
Then a friend pointed him in the direction of Norristown’s Citizenship Leadership Academy, an eight-week series of classes that teaches residents of the Philadelphia metro area how the municipal government operates and equips them with skills as a community leader. In the classes, Sims discovered the value of having the right to vote and explored the process of getting registered. His voting rights were restored thanks to a Pennsylvania law that allows a person convicted of a felony to vote by the date of the next election, if they have served their term and been released from a correctional facility. But an estimated 4.6 million other Americans with a felony conviction are stripped of the right to vote.
Research finds voting rights restoration can benefit community
A new report from the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for voter restoration, has found that permanently denying those rights to returning citizens can do more harm than good in communities across the U.S.
“There's lots of ways that we continue to punish those who've had their lives intersect with the criminal legal system,” Kristen Budd, an author of the report and a research analyst at the Sentencing Project, told Yahoo News. “So, we view voting or restrictions from voting for justice-impacted individuals who have been convicted of a felony as punishment that extends beyond that sentence, whether they're serving it in prison or jail, whether they're on felony probation or parole.”
The report found that voting is a prosocial behavior that can improve public safety, by promoting and creating a positive self-identity and offering a sense of inclusion to those who have served time for a felony conviction. The research it surveyed demonstrated that restoring voting rights can lead to a reduction of contact with criminal activity. It also showed that returning citizens were 10% less likely to reoffend if they were released in automatic restoration states, as opposed to states where people convicted of felonies are permanently disenfranchised.
“The majority of Americans who cannot vote due to a felony conviction – three out of every four – are living in our communities completing felony probation or parole,” the report’s authors stated.
“These individuals are working and paying taxes. They are caregivers. They raise children. Yet, because they cannot vote, they do not have a voice in everyday laws and policies that affect their lives. Excluding people from participating in democratic life is an additional punishment. Civic engagement, including the right to vote, plays an important role in successful reintegration,” the report continued, adding that data shows that the ostracization of people with felony convictions does not improve public safety, but is “psychologically harmful, and negatively affects their perceptions to remain law-abiding.”
Black people are disproportionately disenfranchised in voting process
The Sentencing Project also revealed that the rate at which African Americans are disenfranchised is 3.5 times higher than that of non-African Americans. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, while Black people make up only 12% of the population, they represent 38% of people who are incarcerated. In states like Kentucky, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Dakota, Arizona, Tennessee and Virginia, 1 in 10 Black Americans are stripped of their voting rights.
“States and the places that are more closely aligned with that deep history of disenfranchisement and harm and subjugation are least likely to allow for their democracy to include everybody,” California Assemblyman Isaac Bryan, a Democrat, told Yahoo News. “We know that felony disenfranchisement was closely tied to the emancipation of slaves, and we know the disproportionate share that Black folks make up in our prison system.
"There are states who literally put restrictions on voting within their laws because they associate those types of crimes ... with Black Americans or poor Americans in racial and ethnic groups,” Budd added. "So they were attempting to exclude certain racial and ethnic groups and certain socioeconomic classes from having access to that right to vote."
Sims, who is Black, was eventually pardoned for his conviction in 2021 by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, after an arduous pardon application process that began in 2015. He has an active presence in various communities in Philadelphia, including his adopted community in West Philadelphia.
“My community became my family. I really connected with the damages that I had done to my community, making the correlation between being involved in those same systems that created addiction for my parents. I was only perpetuating that by selling drugs in my community.”
Sims, who works as an administration and financial manager for the Philadelphia Bail Fund, has canvassed for local and national politicians and has run for committee person in West Philadelphia. He now sits on the board of the nonprofit advocacy group Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, which provides free legal advice to city residents with criminal records, and he serves as a pardon coach. He is also chair of the Pardon Project Steering Committee, an advocacy group for policy change around the pardon process.
“I have a different outlook on what someone who is justice-involved can have, as far as power within the political structure and how important it is in having some influence in the political arena to protect the people I represent,” said Sims.
Growing momentum to revoke voter disenfranchisement
The Sentencing Project’s report comes as more states adopt laws around restoring voting rights for convicted felons and addressing the hurdles that returning citizens like Sims have to overcome. The Brennan Center for Justice found that in 2023, at least 14 states have brought before legislatures the issue of restoring voting rights, with measures to reconnect people to the democratic process.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Maine, Vermont and Washington, D.C., are currently the only jurisdictions where people with convictions who have been incarcerated never lose their right to vote, even while they are in prison. Bryan argues that voting is not a privilege that should be revoked, but a “fundamental right” of U.S. citizenship.
“In disenfranchising people who are incarcerated or who have been incarcerated," he said, "you are not just harming democracy, you are actually investing in the kind of policy frameworks that we know lead to criminal activity.”
To address the issue of disenfranchisement, states like California are taking it a step further, pushing measures to allow people to vote even while incarcerated. In February, Bryan introduced an amendment to the state’s constitution that would allow voters to decide whether people who are currently incarcerated due to felony convictions could have their voting rights reinstated.
“Here in California, it's an issue that impacts everybody,” Bryan said. “Black folks have a disproportionate share in our prison, but the majority of people who are incarcerated in California are Latino. We also have 7,000-plus veterans who are incarcerated, who fought for their country, came home, could not find their economic footing and wound up doing things that led to their incarceration and can't vote for the same country they served. We have parents of over 200,000 children who are incarcerated who can't voice their concerns for the superintendent of education in the state, and I think that is a similar feature across the country.”
Budd credits grassroots organizations, which are often steered by individuals like Sims, for working with lawmakers to move this kind of legislation forward.
“This allows me and other people to demonstrate who we are fully,” Sims said. “You can make an impulsive decision sometimes, and it can lead to life-altering circumstances. And we can be judged solely off of that. I'm much more than just a former drug dealer. I don't do that anymore. That is my past. Allow me to establish a presence now and move into the future as a greater person.”