Since 1972, roughly 50-55% of eligible voters have cast their votes in proceeding elections. But there is one group of people who, in some cases, will never be able to vote.
Voting Rights for Former Felons
While some states have been working towards reinstating voting rights for formerly incarcerated felons, in many cases, these people permanently lose their say in how the country is run.
A person convicted of a felony has usually committed one of the following crimes: aggravated assault and/or battery, arson, burglary, domestic violence, drug-related crimes, DUI, fraud, kidnapping, manslaughter, murder, rape, robbery, theft, or vandalism. They go to jail and serve their time, but then we penalize them for the rest of their lives and thereby extend their prison sentence beyond their release date through felony disenfranchisement, which is the suspension or loss of voting rights due to a conviction.
In addition to losing their right to vote, their right to get paid, and, most recently, their right to receive economic stimulus monies, former felons often have a difficult time finding a job and are unable to travel to certain countries.
Not allowing formerly incarcerated people to vote is another way that our country marginalizes these populations, who tend to be overwhelmingly African American and people of color. It is one of the more recent, subtly powerful examples of racial segregation in our country, as author Michelle Alexander has described in her best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
All of this, of course, is both unjust and undemocratic. We are a society of laws predicated on the idea that we hold people accountable for their actions, and, once they’ve paid their due to society, it is our responsibility to allow them back into the fold.
Continuing to punish former offenders by not allowing them to vote is also a sure way to keep them marginalized and increase the chances that they’ll re-offend again.
One of the problems is that we don’t see these formerly incarcerated prisoners as people like you and me. It’s “us” and “them,” which is why it’s so important to break down those barriers.
That was one of my main goals in creating Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership, an educational program I developed more than ten years ago in which university students meet weekly with committed youth at a maximum-security juvenile correctional center to explore questions of meaning, value, and social justice through life-changing conversations about Russian literature classics.
By discussing personally relevant topics and intimate stories—ranging from family to death, and success to moral responsibility—both sides gain powerful connections and challenge whatever stereotypes about the other group they may have entered the class with. Correctional center students and university students come away transformed by this unique educational experience — moved by their discovery of the relevance of classical literature, inspired by the humanity in one another, and empowered to pursue lives of greater purpose and meaning.
In 2015, an MIT study found that “those who were incarcerated as juveniles are 23 percentage points more likely to end up in jail as an adult when compared with juvenile offenders who, by the grace of a lenient judge, avoided incarceration. Put another way: 40 percent of kids who went into juvenile detention ended up in prison by the age of 25.”
In other words, just seven years after earning the right to vote, these young adults could have that right stripped away.
Progress in Restoring Voting Rights
While there are politicians on both sides who disagree with restoring voter rights, the good news is that there has been progress in restoring voting rights.
Source: The Sentencing Project
But until everyone has the right to vote, regardless of their history, we will continue to dehumanize an entire population and not realize our promise as a democratic society founded on the ideals of equity and social justice.
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