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Holder pushes for criminal-justice overhaul

Attorney General Eric Holder is taking a bold stand on, among other things, the unnecessary disenfranchisement of the formerly incarcerated.
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during the Human Rights Campaign's 13th annual Greater New York Gala in New York City, February 8, 2014.
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during the Human Rights Campaign's 13th annual Greater New York Gala in New York City, February 8, 2014.
When it comes to progressive causes, Attorney General Eric Holder has been quite busy. Over the weekend, for example, he unveiled "a bold effort by his department to eliminate the distinction between same-sex and opposite-sex married couples in the federal justice system." Yesterday he issued instructions declaring that it is the Justice Department's policy "to recognize lawful same-sex marriages as broadly as possible" and "treat all individuals equally regardless of sexual orientation."
Holder is fighting against conservative restrictions on voting rights. He's allowing Colorado and the state of Washington to pursue marijuana legalization. He's fighting for sentencing reforms. He's combating "Stand Your Ground" laws.
If the Attorney General retires at the end of the year, as is widely rumored, Holder will depart as arguably the most underrated champion of the progressive agenda to serve in his office in recent memory.
And as Adam Serwer noted this morning, Holder's not done.

Disenfranchisement of the formerly incarcerated is unnecessary, unjust and counterproductive, Attorney General Eric Holder told an audience at the Georgetown University Law Center on Tuesday. "At worst, 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," Holder said. "And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus and fear." Holder's remarks were made at a bipartisan criminal justice symposium held by the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights.

Good for Holder. This is an important issue that too often gets ignored, largely because we're talking about the loss of voting rights for ex-cons with no meaningful political capital.
But as Ari Melber explained a few months ago, the number of affected Americans is considerable.

When the votes are tallied in Virginia's race for governor on Tuesday, over 300,000 citizens will be missing from the voting rolls – including 20% of the state's black population. The reason is not low turnout or voter ID, but a growing and often invisible barrier to voting that is upending elections around the country. Over 5 million Americans are barred from voting because they have criminal records, according to a report this year from the Sentencing Project. The crackdown on ballot access is so intense, a majority of states actually bar former convicts from voting even after they are released from prison. If voting rights were restored to those former inmates, about 4.3 million more Americans would be able to vote. That is over three times margin of victory in the last House midterm elections.

The issue has started to generate attention from policymakers, and the debate doesn't always fall neatly along partisan lines -- for example, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), to his credit, supports the restoration of voting rights to ex-cons.
The more leading officials like Holder can keep the conversation advancing forward, the better.