There should be life after prison

map of felony disenfranchisement laws from the ACLU

map of felony disenfranchisement laws from the ACLU

Senate Democrats in tight races are running as fast as they can from Attorney General Eric Holder’s proposal to return voting rights to ex-felons:

Attorney General Eric Holder’s call to restore voting rights to felons after they’ve served their time in prison has split Senate Democrats.

Liberal Democrats who are not facing tough re-elections this year say it’s the right thing to do, but vulnerable incumbents are steering clear of the proposal.

Holder has become increasingly outspoken recently. This week he declared that state attorneys general are not obligated to defend laws that are discriminatory.

Political experts say barring ex-felons from voting impacts African Americans disproportionately.

It’s embarrassing and sad that this is even controversial. But your ability to exercise your right to vote as an ex-felon is vastly different depending on where you live. In some states, felons lose their voting rights for life. I am proud that my home state is one of only two that allow felons to vote while in prison.

The lack of consistency causes confusion and prohibits people from exercising one of the most fundamental rights in our society. I remember meeting a couple when I was canvassing door-to-door in Fresno about 10 years ago. The man had been convicted on a felony drug charge in the 1980s and hadn’t voted since because he thought he wasn’t allowed to. I was the first person to inform him that he actually had the right to vote in California once his parole ended, and I registered him for the first time in decades.

The fact that we are denying people a voice in our government when they have paid their debt to society is egregious enough. But stripping people of their voting rights has larger consequences. Research shows that felons who vote are less likely to reoffend, which should be the goal of policies that end up being purely punitive rather than effective. Michelle Alexander (whose praises I have sung before and surely will again) makes a compelling case in her brilliant book The New Jim Crow that punishment continues well after prison, whether its disenfranchisement or lack of access to housing benefits and food stamps. This creates a second-class citizenry, made up mostly of people of color thanks to the racist prosecution of the war on drugs.

It’s not new for politicians to lose their spines when it comes to addressing our broken criminal justice system. But voting rights for ex-felons isn’t the kind of policy that’s going to come back and bite politicians with fear-mongering ads about criminals let loose on the streets. The irony of course is that re-enfranchising felons would most likely be helpful to Democrats, as they are mostly people of color who are far less likely to vote Republican. That’s 7.3% of voting-age people in Sen. Mark Warner’s home state of Virginia,  3% in Sen. Mark Pryor’s state of Arkansas, and so on, whose representatives in the Senate won’t stand up for their right to vote. It’s immoral and counterproductive to maintain policies that make every sentence a life sentence.

The good news is that committed organizers are lining up victories to undo some of the harmful policies that make life unlivable for former prisoners. California passed “ban the box” legislation last year prohibiting public employers from asking about a job applicant’s conviction history early in the hiring process.  San Francisco passed an even more stringent version of the bill applying to most employers and housing providers, and the trend is spreading.

This momentum is a glimmer of hope that we must cling to and build upon. Organizing on these issues can seem daunting given some of the political cowardice on display, but victories can be achieved and the effort is worth it for the tangible, meaningful impact on former prisoners’ lives.

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