By: Darrian Botts
The consequences and the stigma associated with the label of “criminal” make successful rehabilitation a difficult task. After leaving a correctional facility, former prisoners continue to face post-sentence consequences that limit their societal freedoms. A prime example of these post-sentence consequences is the restriction placed on voting rights. Currently, 6.1 million Americans are prohibited from exercising their right to vote (Chung, 2016).
In a 2003 survey conducted by Pinaire, Heumann, and Bilotta over 90% of respondents viewed the right to vote as one of the most important, if not the most important right in a democracy (Dhami & Cruise, 2013). Still, state disenfranchisement laws, meant to disqualify offenders from participating in certain freedoms, are upheld in 48 states prohibiting voting while incarcerated for a felony offense, 35 states prohibiting voting for persons on parole, 31 states prohibiting voting for persons on probation, and four states denying all people with felony convictions the right to vote, indefinitely (Felony Disenfranchisement, 2014).
While the public is more likely to consider revoking these rights as punishment for violating the social contract and as a means to deter crime, prisoners maintain that restoring these rights promotes law abiding behavior and reintegration into the community (Dhami & Cruise, 2013). Denying persons convicted of felonies the right to vote further alienates them from society. Their stake in upholding the law is diminished due to their inability to have a voice and their lack of political representation in the United States’ political system.
Of more concern is the fact that African Americans are disproportionately affected by state disenfranchisement laws. One in every thirteen African Americans within the United States, compared to one in every fifty-six non-black voters, are denied the right to vote (Felony Disenfranchisement, 2014). This translates into the reduction of eligible African American voters who are overwhelmingly Democratic Party voters. Additionally, “the white felon population is principally composed of poor or working-class offenders who are also likely to vote Democratic” making it clear that disenfranchisement serves to detract from the democratic voting base (Uggen & Manza, 2002). Although restoring these rights alone may not change the outcomes of elections, this type of inequality undermines the democratic process (Uggen & Manza, 2005).
Moving forward, we must recognize how felony disenfranchisement laws are utilized as a means of controlling who can and cannot participate in the political process. Restricting voting rights of individuals that have made mistakes, is a disservice to the very foundation of democracy upon which the United States was built. In order to promote re-entry and successful rehabilitation, we must not allow the past to define the individual and we should not restrict their rights in a manner that prohibits them from experiencing what it means to truly be a member of society. By restoring their rights, we enable individuals to perceive themselves as useful, responsible, trusted, and law-abiding citizens. By insuring that those who have historically been excluded are given a voice in ‘who and what governs society’, equal opportunity can be promoted and issues too often ignored, can be addressed.