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Harmful, Undeserved Punishment


Nearly five million American citizens are denied the right to vote ­ one of every 50 citizens. That includes 13 percent of all African-American men nationwide, up to almost twice that percentage in particular states and the majority of adults ­ black and white — in some inner city neighborhoods.

All have been found guilty of committing felonies. Some are in prison, some on probation, some on parole. One-third are neither prisoners nor on probation or parole, but nevertheless remain disenfranchised because they are ex-convicts.

Fourteen of the state laws that govern such matters bar ex-cons from ever voting. Others restore their voting rights after waiting periods of several years following completion of their sentences or leave that decision to the governor or state legislature. Only about a third of the states allow offenders to vote while on parole or probation, and only two ­ Maine and Vermont ­ allow them to vote while they’re still in prison.

It perhaps makes sense to deny the vote to prisoners as part of their punishment, but otherwise the laws make no sense. Once the offenders’ sentences are completed, once they’ve paid their debt to society, there’s no moral or legal justification for further punishment. What’s needed, often badly needed, is rehabilitation. Ideally, ex-cons should re-enter society quickly as actively participating citizens with all the rights of citizenship.

“Voting is a fundamental right in a democracy, it’s not a privilege,” notes Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, an ex-con who’s one of leaders of a movement to grant voting rights to all offenders. “In prison you lose your liberty, but you don’t lose your citizenship.”

Of course it’s quite possible that some, maybe many, ex-cons might not want to become good citizens. But if they aren’t even allowed to try, if they are forced to remain voiceless in the critical matter of choosing political leaders, if they are to be taxed without representation, it gives them all the more reason to remain alienated from others and resume their anti-social conduct.

Lawmakers in every other industrialized nation understand this. They may deny the vote to offenders convicted of election fraud or other official corruption, but otherwise generally allow convicts and ex-convicts to vote.

What’s more, polls show that the American public overwhelmingly supports granting voting rights to all convicted felons once their sentences are served.

But though the restrictions on voting have been eased in a handful of states, the vast majority of cons and ex-cons are still being denied the full rights of citizenship ­ and their numbers have been soaring, thanks largely to the steep and steady increase in convictions for drug-related offenses.

Fear of being perceived as “soft on crime” meanwhile has kept most politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, from extending any rights to any felons, past, present or future.

That public opinion nevertheless favors extending the rights is indicative of what sociologist Chris Uggen of the University of Minnesota describes as a culture clash that’s pitting “two social trends against each other ­ the tough-on-crime movement against the expansion of civil rights.”

Studies by Uggen show that felons’ votes could be decisive in tight elections. He found that if ex-cons had been allowed to vote in Florida, where they are barred for life from voting, Democrat Al Gore would have won the state and thus the presidency in 2000. Uggen also found that if felons nationwide had been allowed to vote in congressional races, Democrats probably would now control the Senate. It’s true, at any rate, that a high proportion of felons are from minority groups that typically vote heavily Democratic.

Ironically, many of the state laws limiting felons’ voting rights stem from those used in southern states after the Civil War to deny the vote to the African-Americans who had just been freed from slavery. The laws, which kept even those with only minor criminal records from voting, were later used along with poll taxes and literacy tests to keep most black southerners from the polls.

And now we’re using the laws to deny votes to 1.4 million African-American citizens and to more than 3.5 million other citizens. Many undoubtedly did commit serious crimes and should be punished for it, but none deserve the penalty of losing their vote, a loss that does great and unnecessary harm to them and to all of society.

Copyright © 2005 Dick Meister, a veteran San Francisco journalist ([email protected], www.dickmeister.com).

 

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