Jennifer Schroeder can't escape her past — at least not until 2053.
A nonviolent drug offense in Wright County landed her a 40-year probation sentence that won't expire until she's 71.
The felony conviction is a "death sentence," she testified last month at the state's Sentencing Guidelines Commission. "You can't get decent housing. I'll never be able to own a gun to protect myself. … I can't leave this country for the rest of my life, essentially, because of a possession charge." For most of her adult life, she'll be prohibited from voting, owning a firearm or traveling abroad.
A growing national movement to restore voting rights for felons prompted one reader to turn to Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's community-driven reporting project, to ask: Why are felons stripped of their voting rights, and what other rights do they lose when convicted?
Minnesota passed disenfranchisement of felons with statehood in 1858, but the practice didn't become commonplace nationally until after the Civil War — when newly emancipated African-Americans gained the right to vote.
Chris Uggen, a criminologist at the University of Minnesota who studies felon voting bans, said it's difficult to untangle race from a punishment that continues to disproportionately impact black and Indigenous people.
Blacks are four times likelier to lose voting privileges compared with the rest of the adult population, according to the Sentencing Project. And in parts of the South, more than one in five is disenfranchised.
"This practice definitely dilutes the votes of communities of color," Uggen said.
Despite constitutional challenges, those laws remained on the books in the majority of the country.
Today, about 6 million are blocked from the ballot box because of a felony conviction. But restrictions vary greatly by state. And depending on the crime, felons are also barred from holding public office, traveling internationally, retaining medical licenses or ever owning a firearm.
"It's fairly unusual across the globe for collateral sanctions to be as broad as they are in the United States and to affect so many people," Uggen said.
Minnesota is one of 18 states where felons cannot vote until they complete post-incarceration supervision, such as probation or parole. Others, like Michigan and Indiana, automatically restore those rights upon release.
The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission on Thursday approved a five-year cap on felony probation lengths in most circumstances. However, the guidelines are not retroactive.
But public opinion is shifting in favor of reforms, Uggen said, and recent polls suggest at least 60% now support the immediate renewal of voting rights upon a prisoner's release.
"The logic of probation and parole is that the criminal justice system has decided that you're fit to be in the community," he said. "The logic in denying the vote at that point doesn't make as much sense to the average American."
Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648