February 24, 2013

Bill would prevent murderers from voting

AMHI memorial, removing minimum sentence for reckless conduct with a firearm among new measures introduced by legislators

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Rep. Gary Knight thinks convicted murderers should not be allowed to vote while they are in prison, so he's sponsoring a measure to change the Maine Constitution.

Knight, a Republican from Livermore Falls, knows other attempts to restrict felons' voting rights have failed in Maine in recent years. But he said conversations with family members of murder victims convinced him it's time to try again.

This will be the sixth time since 1999 that the Legislature has considered a bill to restrict felons' voting rights, according to the Law and Legislative Reference Library. All those attempts have failed.

Maine is one of only two states that allow felons to vote while incarcerated, along with Vermont.

Knight said his bill is different from those that were rejected because it specifies that only those convicted of Class A crimes, which include murder, manslaughter and gross sexual assault, would be prevented from voting. Also, when they get out of prison, their voting rights would be restored.

"They give up their rights of citizenship when they commit this type of crime," he said. "This is to address the most heinous of crimes."

The bill will be opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which has led the opposition in the past.

"Stripping people of constitutional rights is not appropriate punishment," said Executive Director Shenna Bellows. "Voting is also an important tool in rehabilitation and reintegration into the community."

As a proposed constitutional amendment, the bill would require two-thirds support for passage. It is headed to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee for consideration.

Knight's bill, L.D. 573, is one of many sponsored by local lawmakers or with local effects that have been released in recent weeks.

Among others:

* L.D. 613 calls for the state to pay $50,000 toward erecting a memorial in memory of those who died at the former Augusta Mental Health Institute. Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, said members of the Cemetery Project in Maine asked her to sponsor the measure to honor the estimated 11,000 people who died at the hospital or while on leave from AMHI between 1840 and 2005. Hayes said she hopes the bill will raise awareness for the project and possibly spur more private donations to reduce the amount that would be requested from the state. So far, the group has received about $10,000 in private donations.

Hayes said her mother lived at AMHI for years and she remembers visits to the psychiatric center.

"I feel for the families," she said. "It was a pretty scary place for me as a 10-year-old."

The bill will be considered by the State and Local Government Committee.

* Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, is sponsoring L.D. 626, which would remove the mandatory minimum sentence of one year for those convicted of reckless conduct with a firearm. Katz said he wants to give judges more discretion to hand out appropriate sentences.

"We've got scarce resources in county jails and prisons," he said. "We ought to reserve those slots for the most dangerous."

The bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee.

* Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, is sponsoring L.D. 558, a proposal to erect a monument to Franco-Americans somewhere on or near the State House campus. Fredette said the idea came out of a task force that met last year to study the contributions of Franco-Americans to Maine. His bill does not seek any state funds but would call for private fundraising over a three-to-five-year period.

The bill will be considered by the State and Local Government Committee.

* Rep. Larry Gilbert, D-Jay, is sponsoring L.D. 609, which requires the Department of Education to adopt rules to require suicide prevention training for all school personnel. Gilbert said parents of teens who took their own lives spurred him to sponsor the bill. He wants all school employees to be able to recognize the basic signs so those with expert training in the field can be alerted to the troubled teen.

"A lot of times youth connect with the bus driver, janitor, cafeteria worker or ed tech," he said.

The bill is headed to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

Susan Cover -- 621-5643
scover@mainetoday.com

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