More than two million African-Americans cannot vote because of current or previous felony convictions.
Eleven states continue to restrict voting rights after a person has served a prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole, the attorney general said at a symposium on the criminal justice system.
"Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans — 5.8 million of our fellow citizens — are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions," said Holder. "It is time to fundamentally rethink laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision."
He said 2.2 million black citizens, or nearly one in 13 African-American adults, are banned from voting because of these laws, and said the ratio climbs to one in five in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia.
Holder's remarks on restoring voting rights are part of the attorney general's initiative seeking fundamental change in the nation's criminal justice system.
Last August, Holder instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. He said long mandatory terms have flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted money away from crime fighting.
In Tuesday's remarks on disenfranchising former prisoners, Holder brought up the issue of race.
"These laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America's past — a time of post-Civil War discrimination," he said. "Although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African-Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable."
Holder said that because of these laws, about 10 percent of Floridians and 8 percent of people in Mississippi are disenfranchised. Iowa moved away from automatic restoration of rights following the completion of a criminal sentence to a process requiring intervention by the governor, he said.
On the positive side, he said 23 states, including Nebraska, Nevada, Texas and Washington state, have enacted recent improvements and Virginia has adopted a policy that automatically restores the voting rights of former prisoners with nonviolent convictions. The Virginia policy was done by order of the governor. Holder says legislation is the key to permanent change.
The 11 states identified by the Justice Department as restricting voting rights are Arizona, Florida, Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Wyoming, Tennessee and Virginia.
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(Photo: Eric Risberg/AP Photo)