5 a.m. late spring in Wisconsin, a man drunkenly stumbles behind the club Millennium in downtown La Crosse. He spies an open door and he walks in, goes to the basement, grabs some t-shirts and a can of gasoline and sets the place ablaze. He was apprehended by police a couple of hours later. And then a week later, he was convicted of arson and reckless endangerment.
That man was Steve Phalen and at the time he was 23 years old. He had no prior record, and he was suffering from depression and a history of other mental illness. During his conviction trial, he told that the court that arson was his way of crying for help. The judge, attempting to be lenient, sentenced him to one year of house arrest, and 12 years of probation. But the judge made a fatal mistake because of the state of Criminal Justice in our nation. See in Wisconsin, where Steve Phalen lived at the time. People in prison, on probation and on parole could not vote. And when Steve Phalen moves to Florida, a few years later, he still could not vote because in Florida at that time, people are not able to vote, felons not able to vote permanently after their convictions. Florida and Wisconsin are not the only two states in our country that practice felony disenfranchisement.
In case you don't remember, I sometimes forget, we have 50 states 48 of them disenfranchise felons after conviction. 11 of them do so permanently restricting the rights to vote for convicted felons for the rest of their lives. Seventeen of them can restrict the right to vote for felons when they're in prison, on probation, or on parole. And 20 states restrict the right, the right to vote for felons while they are in prison. Only two states, Maine and Vermont directly north of us, don't restrict the rights of over felons at all. This sets us apart from almost every other liberal democracy.
It wasn't always this way. Felony disenfranchisement comes from English common law concept known as civil death, where criminals were stripped of all of their rights after conviction. In the early colonies, felony disenfranchisement was practiced as a punishment for election-related crimes, election fraud, if you tamper with ballots, you are disenfranchised. There's a certain symmetry there. But come the Civil War and the ratification of the 15th amendment, giving black people the constitutional right to vote for the first time in our nation's history. Southern states widely adopted felony disenfranchisement, and discriminatory laws and policing in order to undo that change, in order to strip black people from the right to vote through alternative means.
Felony disenfranchisement has come a long while since then, but it still serves the same purpose today. It’s not only practiced in the south, either it's 48 states do this. Today in four states in 2016, four states, Kentucky, Virginia, Florida, and Tennessee, more than 20% of all black adults could not vote because of felony convictions. It still serves the same purpose that it did during Reconstruction. Felony disenfranchisement is not practicing other liberal democracies, because the right to vote is the fundamental marker of who is a person in a democracy, right, We are all adults in this room, or at least I don't see any children, which means that we all have the right to vote if we are citizens, we are all rational people possessed with the ability to choose things for ourselves and to self govern. To strip away that right to vote is to tell somebody that they are subhuman, that they are no longer a citizen that they are not a member of a society that they are somehow a beast, an undead person. Stripping away the right to vote takes away somebody's civil life. It takes their voice out of democracy quite literally. It makes it so they can no longer officially take part in our society.
Now, felony disenfranchisement, if we are to stay an open, free and inclusive democracy, we must get rid of it. In the words of Supreme Court, Justice Brennan, in the landmark case for Furman versus Georgia in 1972, even the vilest criminal remains a human being possessed of common human dignity. To strip the right to vote for anybody denies that dignity and disrespects that human person. Now, it might sound like a radical proposal to change the laws and 48 different states, and it's part of the Federal system of America that makes this so difficult. It really shouldn't be that radical. It's not practiced almost anywhere else.
The good thing is that in recent years, we've made progress. For example in December, the new governor of Kentucky extended the right to vote to felons post-sentence. And earlier in 2019 in Colorado, parolees were given the right to vote back. And the same thing happened 2018 in New York, in 2017 in Wyoming, nonviolent felons were given the right to vote post-sentence. And finally, in 2018, the man that I started talking about Steve Phalen, wrote to the New Yorker, that he was possessed by a wild, full, a wild and full smile, and a sense of agency. He hadn't felt since he was 23 when he was convicted of arson, because he was living in Florida at the time. And in November of 2018, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment by a wide margin, that that gave felons the right to vote post-sentence.
Now the laws and regulations surrounding that amendment are being battled out in Florida court right now. Because of these proposals, the things that happened in Wyoming and Colorado and New York and Florida, these proposals don't go far enough. If it is discriminatory, and cruel and wrong to restrict the right to vote for felons after their sentences. It is discriminatory, wrong and cruel to do so while they are serving their time in prison, on probation or on parole. It is wrong regardless. Now, as somebody else mentioned, we have elections coming up. And elections are how we make things, how we get things done in this country. in November, and I hope to see you all voting, in November. When we go to the polls, spend a second of time thinking about the millions of living, breathing, feeling working adults in this country, who cannot do that same thing who cannot vote because of their felony convictions. Bring them with you to the polls in your minds and in your hearts and vote for candidates who will give them that right who restore them as full members of our society. felony disenfranchisement has been pervasive and depressive for more than 100 years in the country since the end of reconstruction. It is past time to get rid of it.