U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday that states should repeal laws forbidding convicted felons from voting, even after completing their sentences. He said such laws disproportionately affect black Americans and are both “unjust” and “counterproductive.”
He is right. Such laws are needlessly vindictive and cannot be shown to serve any constructive purpose. Moreover, they vary unreasonably between jurisdictions, with a disturbing number of the harshest examples coming from the states with some of the worst histories of racial discrimination.
But Holder has also put his finger on a larger problem: Just what do we expect from convicted felons after they have “paid their debt to society”? Do we want them to be forever assigned to the fringes and dark corners of American life – in which case, we can soon expect to see most of them back in prison? Or do we want to see them rehabilitated at least to the point of peaceful self-sufficiency?
Of course, there must be consequences for bad acts, and those consequences must put the safety of innocents and the protection of society first. That is not up for debate.
A convicted pedophile should never be allowed to operate or work in a child-care center. The connection there is too clear, the historical evidence of recidivism too overwhelming and the potential for harm too great.
Beyond examples such as that though, what is the point of limiting the rights of those who have done their time? Specifically, what purpose does it serve to deprive a convicted felon of the right vote?
Voting is an inherently nonviolent act. In fact, in the context of history, it is in many ways the exact antithesis of violence. That we in the United States accept close and contentious electoral outcomes without resorting to violence – unlike so many other countries – is a hallmark of our democracy and a strong source of national pride. Why deprive people trying to reintegrate themselves into society the opportunity to participate in such a civilizing process?
Holder is right, too, in reminding us such laws date largely from the latter half of the 19th century, when too often the point was to keep recently enfranchised African Americans from voting. Even today, more than 38 percent of those who are barred from voting because of their criminal records are black. That is roughly three times the percentage of African Americans in the overall population.
Nonetheless, as reported by The Christian Science Monitor, 11 states still limit the voting rights of felons even after their prison sentence and parole or probation are complete. Three states – Iowa, Kentucky and Florida – ban felons from voting for life unless the governor grants clemency. Two others – Vermont and Maine – have no restrictions and even allow felons to vote by absentee ballot while in prison.
Colorado reinstates felons’ voting rights after the completion of their sentences, including probation or parole.
Holder’s focus on voting rights also suggests a broader debate about the rights of felons in other areas – and that would be a discussion worth having. For now though, it is enough to look to voting rights. For if cannot extend to those who have fulfilled their legal obligations the most rudimentary form of political equality, how can we expect them once again to become our fellow citizens?