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March 02, 2005

Re-Enfranchisement for Felons

Shawn Macomber suggests re-enfranchisement for felons in an article today, and I find myself disagreeing. Maybe. I started considering it during this last election cycle, and I still haven't found what I consider to be a solid answer.

Close to five million Americans are currently barred from voting because of felony convictions. Of this number, nearly two million have completely paid their debt to society in the form of time served behind bars, parole, and probation. There is no legitimate moral argument for denying those who have regained their status as free citizens through public penance the most basic right of a citizen.

He then goes on to note that one of the reasons people on the right oppose re-enfranchisement of felons is that they will form a large, new block of Democrats. That's a reasonable assumption, although the assumption that they will actually vote in numbers large enough to make a difference is arguable. Either way, opposition on those grounds is unreasonable. I object for an entirely different reason: not every class of citizen in the United States has the same rights (even with regards to voting) as every other class of voter.

Minors, for example, have an abbreviated set of rights, and curbs are placed on the political activity of active military personnel. Former sex offenders often have restrictions placed on them that aren't placed on other criminals. Shawn acknowledges this, to some extent, when noting that felons are restricted from gun ownership (which, I agree, has dubious value and cause in the case of non-violent offenders).

There is a reason for each set of curbs: minors aren't trusted with more than an abbreviated set of rights because they haven't yet reached that somewhat arbitrary age where we believe that they should have the education, maturity, and social knowledge to make their votes reasonable and well-considered. Even at the age of majority, though, they can't drinking alcohol or run for some public offices. Though they have done nothing wrong, these non-minor citizens are excluded from certain practices that are open to older citizens.

The question is what is it that we achieve by pushing felons out of that most basic, active level of participation? From my point of view, felons (in a broad and sweeping sense) have exhibited that extraordinary level of bad judgment that leaves in question their ability to be constructive voters. They may have paid their debt, but they have also set themselves apart by their actions.

Put it this way: while it isn't stated explicitly at sentencing, I consider the curbs on rights to be a part of the punishment of felons. It's part of the package of committing a crime bad enough to be labeled a felony: you go to jail, you complete parole, you get to be free and have a job and take part in life again, but you don't get to vote.

I don't, unlike Shawn, believe that this is dehumanizing the entire class of citizens. I think it's just due diligence. That is, when trust is broken it isn't repaired with a prison sentence. If a check forger completes his sentence, would it be wise to give him employment in a bank? The crime continues to matter beyond the prison sentence. This isn't an attempt to make monsters of every felon, but simply saying that there is a reasonable skepticism that has to be factored into the argument.

If I could leave it at that, then I would probably be comfortable. The problem comes when you start considering what constitutes a felony.

But a felony is not what it once was in America, as is made painfully obvious by the 600 percent jump in incarceration rates over the last 30 years. Indeed, it can and should be argued that a standard which permanently disenfranchises anyone who commits a non-violent felony -- of which there are now legion -- is cruel and unusual. Can any reasonable person say a non-violent drug offender should have his voting rights curtailed for the rest of his life? How about someone who once wrote a series of bad checks? Or even on the violent end of things, once engaged in an ill advised bar fight? Are we really ready to tell these people no matter what they do they can never be trusted by society again? That there is no way to reform after even a minor youthful indiscretion?

Hyperbolically screaming, opponents of re-enfranchisement for ex-felons make monsters out of men, because it lends easy justification to an abridgement of rights that would not hold up under individual scrutiny. The truth is, the real monsters are largely either still in jail or under onerous probation requirements and will not likely be able to vote anytime soon. It's high time the rest of these men and women who have served their time are released from the caricature. The punishment does not fit the crime, and no matter which way it is spun, permanent disenfranchisement will never be compatible with a just society.

And here's where I think he might be right. I don't know that it's supportable to think that "the real monsters are largely either still in jail or under onerous probation requirement," but it's reasonable to argue that we've criminalized things like drug offenses to the point that what constitutes a felony today is a far cry from what constituted a felony at the birth of our nation.

Our booming prison population is something that leaves me uncomfortable even outside the boundaries of this conversation; in the context of re-enfranchisement, it takes on an even more important role. Examining voting rights in relation to the changes we've made to our judicial system is not only reasonable, it's necessary.

I don't remain entirely convinced that re-enfranchisement is the right answer, but I am moved to address the issue again. Is any one-size fits all solution right or is their room for consideration of individual cases or new guidelines (as I think there should be in relation to gun ownership)?

Read the story.
Or comment on Shawn's site. (You might also want to follow the link to the crazy-fun-loud Free Republic side of the conversation. Some of the comments are hilarious.)

Posted by zombyboy at March 2, 2005 10:31 AM

I confess to feeling quite intimidated in commenting. I think I'll just read....

Posted by: Rae at March 2, 2005 12:49 PM

Does it really have to be all or nothing?

Back in my younger and dumber days, I tried to steal a car stereo. I was promptly caught and put in jail, just as I should have been. Thing was, the prosecuter attempted to charge me with Theft over $100, which would have been a Class E felony. My life would have been pretty screwed because of one moment of drunken stupidity.

This is not to say I'm all for letting all felons vote, but maybe we should consider a dividing line. It could be that any Class E felon (very minor charges) would be allowed to eventually regain their voting rights while a Class A felon (violent crime and/or massive theft) would just be screwed.

Either way, I don't think we should just jump into it right now as a knee-jerk reaction to a senator who obviously wants to pad the voter rolls for her presidential bid.

Posted by: Drew at March 2, 2005 12:55 PM

My brother has a felony on his record. If he felt stronjgly enough about regaining his civil rights, in California he can petition the Board of Pardons (or whatever it's called) and try to get them restored.

He cares more, I'm pretty sure, about his right to own guns than about voting, and that may not be in the cards out there under any circumstances, for all I know -- but if he desperately wanted to be able to vote, he has options.

I'm against any kind of federally mandated standard for all states. I'm especially against one that sloshes way over to one extreme or another. This is not something the feds really have any business determining for the states.

Posted by: McGehee at March 2, 2005 03:32 PM

I have often mulled over this very topic, here's what I came up with:

The term "paid his debt to society" is kind of misleading, what it really means is that he served the punishment doled out by the courts. His debt to society will never be paid off i.e. he will never contribute to the GNP.
The way the system is right now, I would not change a thing, despite realizing that once the sentence is filled out I do see that it is an injustice that ex-felons do not have the same rights as others. The thing is, most criminal have not been rehabilitated. They have been incarcerated or warehoused (loaded language I know) The daily routine is just that, a routine to be gotten through, so prison just becomes something to get through, so rehabilitation just becomes a very good lesson on how to get through.
Prison is therefore too easy once you get the hang of it (I have not been there though) It just does not suck enough. A prisoner has his whole schedule mapped out for him, breakfast, lunch and dinner all waiting for him at the cafeteria, outside time, varius arts and crafts that he can do to pass the time (or not). We have all heard or seen pictures of convicts lifting weights or playing basketball. He has done nothing to deserve these perks. Whereas you or I have to make time to do things like lift weights or play basketball. Obviously those types of things have to wait until the work day is done, the gutter is cleaned out and the dishes are done, what does this mean?
It means that by the time the convict is an ex-convict he in all likelihood has less of a work ethic than he did before he was ever incarcerated. Suddenly everything that was delivered to him in prison is his job.
That is kind of like raising a lion with a bottle and Purina lion food for most of his life and then one day dropping him into the jungle. What? Hunt? How? I have never done that before. This person is going to get into trouble again (recidivism).
How is this, in order to pass muster from groups like the ACLU who would hate this idea, The criminal would have a choice between prison as now versus prison designed to make a person fit for real life. You have as basic rights, a room, a cot, a vitamin a day, bread and water the rest you have to work for. I believe this is fair because outside of prison the normal citizen does not get even that for free. This would allow the felon to live a somewhat normal life in prison. If life inside prison were harder than real life, real life would be more possible. Hell, put a bar in there so after work(breaking rocks, soldering circuit boards, I donít know, something)these folks trying to learn how to live in society can get together have a limited number of beers and watch the game if their level of work permits. Also, if prison is somewhere hard to be, you would not want to go back.
After a felon went to my prison, I believe his debt would be repaid, and I would give him full rights to vote his conscience (own a gun too).

Posted by: matt at March 3, 2005 04:58 PM
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