Let Them Vote
Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder called on states with laws barring convicted felons from voting to repeal those laws. The following map illustrates where such laws currently exist:
The justness of such laws is called into question for several reasons. The sense that ex-convicts should forever lose the right to vote, even after serving their sentences and paying their debt to society, is unfair to them is widespread. We are talking in many instances of a group comprised of individuals who are predominantly non-white and/or poor.
That American justice is far from colorblind is hardly in dispute at this point. Crimes labeled as felonies vary from, state to state as do those incarcerated for them and the lengths of their sentences. The make-up of the prison population nationwide is indisputably heavily weighted against the poor and particularly persons of color. Even the crimes themselves and the punishments doled out for them tend to focus more severely on these groups, while seemingly treating those on the upper end of the socio-economic scale and whites more leniently.
This targeting of the poor and racial/ethnic minority groups is perhaps most readily apparent in the treatment of drug offenses in the alleged War on Drugs, which have resulted both in more convictions and more prison time served by members of these groups than for whites committing similar crimes, or the laws targeting crack compared to powdered forms of cocaine for more severe punishment. The fact that so-called white collar crimes are treated much less severely than those committed by others, regardless of whether or not the crimes are violent or victimless also stands out as a symptom of an unjust justice system. Many believe that bankers and others whose fraud resulted in people losing their homes and/or life savings deserve to spend more time in prison than someone who has been caught in possession of an ounce of marijuana, but until very recently, that was the exception rather than the rule, especially when the latter crime was committed by a poor person of color.
Regardless of what crimes the government deems to be severe enough to warrant punishment and to what degree, the sentence need not include punishment beyond the scope of the justice system to administer. Does a youthful indiscretion that results in little harm to anyone other than perhaps the person committing it need to impoverish the perpetrator for the rest of his or her life? Should a commission of a minor felony mean that one can never have a job above the minimum wage level or be able to vote in elections? No. The purpose of the prison sentence should be to protect the rest of the society from unwanted violations of their rights by someone else, while at the same time punishing the person committing prohibited acts for a specific period of time, after which they should be able to rehabilitate their lives and become willing and productive full members of the larger society again. Citizens who have served their time should not be punished after their release, except for the restrictions of parole or probation placed upon them at that time.
Taking the voting right away from only those convicted of crimes in our imperfect justice system that punishes certain groups unfairly with regard to their severity compared to other groups is in no way democratic. There is no way our prison population should be so over-crowded with prisoners to begin with when compared to nearly every other nation on earth. The fact that the prison population is skewed as far as it is from the general population with regard to race and ethnicity is inexcusable, especially when no evidence exists that members of these groups commit the offenses with any greater frequency than the groups who are not being punished for them. If you want to take away someone’s right to vote, you should need to do more than just legislate some harmless activity they partake in to be prohibitive of their exercising that right at any time later in life.
How many innocent people spend years in prison for crimes they never committed? Plenty. Even when people are guilty of a crime, however, the punishment for the crime needs to be one that allows the guilty to serve their sentence and rejoin society as full participants, with the same freedoms and rights as the rest of us. Turning them into people with few or no job prospects and few of the rights the rest of us have leads to the perpetuation of more recidivism and a vicious cycle between poverty and prison cells that serves few of us well. We need to encourage more people to participate in our political process so that it can serve all of us better, not just those fortunate enough to be able to write the rules in their favor.
Refusing to reinstate voting rights to convicted felons once their debt to society has been paid is just another way for those in power to stay in power by restricting access to the ballot box by those they deem unworthy of participating in their own governance. It’s voter suppression different only in degree from various other methods which have been enacted in the past and attempted in the present to keep people who should have an equal voice in the politics of our society from being able to express it. Extending the right to vote to women and former slaves took centuries. Other steps have been taken to further extend the franchise to 18 year olds and to make it easier to vote via early voting in some places as well. Repealing the laws disenfranchising felons in various states as outlined by the Attorney General is the right thing to do – both for the ex-convicts and for society as a whole. Actions such as these and other laws that expand, rather than restrict, the size of the electorate are needed in order to achieve the democracy we have been taught to expect and respect in our country.
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