Jawharrah Bahar, who works as the director of outreach for Free Hearts, said it took five years to get her voting rights restored. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Against the backdrop of Tennessee ranking among the worst states in the country for restoring the voting rights of felons, Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry’s office has quietly been working behind the scenes to cut the red tape and simplify the complicated bureaucratic process.
Instead of making a person navigate the necessary approval process from the state probation and parole office, a presiding judge, the criminal clerk and the election commission – an undertaking that can sometimes take years – Gentry has turned his office into a one-stop shop.
Gentry’s staff helps individuals access the paperwork from the state showing they’ve met their parole requirements. Staff members help felons petition the judge to have their court fines reduced, or completely dismissed if the person may be considered indigent and help the individual submit voter registration forms to the election commission.
And Gentry’s office has spearheaded an awareness campaign partnering with churches, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper’s office and nonprofits such as Free Hearts to spread the word to felons who may have given up hope about voting. Free Hearts has also helped some felons pay their fines and court fees, which is necessary in order to have voting rights restored.
It’s simple, boring work to cut through the red tape, but there are early signs that it’s paid off.
Thanks in large part to the concerted effort, since February Gentry’s office has sent documentation to the election commission for 531 felons to have their voting rights restored. Voting rights activists and Nashville leaders say it’s important progress in a state that ranked second in the nation for the number of voting age residents unable to register to vote because of a felony conviction, according to a recently released study by the Sentencing Project.
Gentry is sheepish about the progress, because he points out the process is still onerous and can be extremely expensive in terms of fines and restitution. He says his office has made a “bad process not as bad.”
“We created within our office a process that helps people to be able to move through a very confusing, difficult restoration procedure,” Gentry said, adding that although his office didn’t track the number in previous years, 531 represents a massive increase. “Some people, we can actually get their voting rights back the day they contact us.
“We have created an efficient and effective method of doing it.”
As Gentry describes it, there has been tremendous focus in reform circles of changing state laws to make it easier for felons to restore their voting rights – changes more in line with laws in other states.
Gentry said his office developed the strategy of working within the existing law. He said people with felony convictions are often confused and disenfranchised – the very demographic that would struggle the most to navigate the bureaucracy of contacting multiple government agencies, accessing documents, signing the proper forms and meeting stringent deadlines.
Among the changes the criminal court clerk’s office has implemented, after a felon inquires about getting their voting rights restored, a staffer will directly contact the parole office electronically for proof that parole requirements have been met. This saves time and trips to a different office.
Because felons must be current on all fines and court-mandated restitution, Gentry’s office will help the person send the paperwork to a judge for consideration of having their financial requirement reduced. If the person is indigent and unable to pay, the fees can be completely waived in some cases, Gentry said.
There is also confusion among many former felons about which convictions impact their voting rights. Gentry said some people don’t take the time to inquire about how to have their rights restored, because they assume it an impossible task. But in some cases, the person has actually paid the fees for the conviction that cost them their voting rights. Gentry said his staff, led by deputy clerk Lillian Machado, has made it easier for people to answer such questions.
“Rather than try to get laws changed we work within the law,” Gentry said. “We become that agency that can take a bad process and make it not as bad.”
To get the word out about the work, Gentry has partnered with churches and other civic groups.
We created within our office a process that helps people to be able to move through a very confusing, difficult restoration process.
– Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry
“A lot of time people trying to get their voting rights back don’t understand it’s not everything on (their record that costs them the ability to register to vote),” Gentry said. “They can owe fines and fees on five different charges but there’s only one that’s holding their voting rights. They see this big figure and say, ‘I’ll never get my voting rights back.’”
Gentry said collaborating with the nonprofit Free Hearts has especially helped the effort. Earlier this year, Free Hearts contacted Gentry’s office to find out how many felons owed $5,000 or less in fines necessary to have their voting rights restored.
Gentry’s office could only search its internal database going back about 10 years, but determined 65,513 people fit that description. During a voting drive earlier this year, Free Hearts helped pay off some of those fines in order to clear the last hurdle so they could register.
Keeda Haynes, the former Nashville public defender who ran for Congress earlier this year and serves as senior legal counsel for Free Hearts, said the criminal court clerk’s office deserves credit for simplifying the process.
“We had people paying online their fees and fines,” Haynes said. “They were able to make a phone call and show it had been paid. We were going to have to essentially be driving from the clerk’s office, to the probation office, to the election commission. So the fact they were able to communicate directly with each other definitely helped.”
Haynes said this restoration system that precludes mostly minorities from registering to vote remains inherently unfair in Tennessee. For instance, Haynes said Tennessee is the only state in the nation where in addition to being required to pay fines, fees and restoration, a former felon must also be current on their child support requirements.
“Our goal was to make sure people are able to participate in our democracy, regardless of whether it’s a presidential election or down-ballot races,” Haynes said. “We feel that it’s not just the person who can’t vote who’s impacted. It’s the entire community. We’re not able to use our collective voices to vote for people that we feel are going to get resources to us and our community so that we can really experience the healing justice and liberation in our community that we’re all calling for.”
Jawharrah Bahar, who works as the director of outreach for Free Hearts, said it took her about five years to navigate the restoration process to have her rights restored. The biggest hurdle, Bahar said, was the fines and fees she owed following her conviction.
Bahar said she appreciated the criminal clerk’s office making the process simpler for her. After sending in her registration documents and thinking she had checked all the boxes to vote for the first time, Bahar received a letter from the state that she still owed some money.
“The way I felt was I did my time. I paid my debt to society. Why are you making it so hard for me to just register to vote,” Bahar said.
Gentry said his office isn’t the cure-all for the bureaucracy and can’t solve all of the problems that a person faces when trying to restore their voting rights. He said it took about a year to understand how his office can “smooth out the process.”
“Of course it was very depressing because we were meeting people who were getting caught up in it and not able to move through it the way they are now,” Gentry said.
The work of Gentry and his staff has caught the attention of other elected officials in Nashville. Cooper, who has been a vocal proponent of expanding voting rights, said the criminal court clerk’s office is “doing a great job for many formerly incarcerated individuals.”
“His office knows how to cut through red tape and has been great at calling people who are about to lose their driver’s license due to failure to pay court costs,” Cooper said. “My office is also working with Howard Gentry on restoring voting rights to the 421,000 Tennesseans who are currently disenfranchised.”
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