Too often, political issues are depicted as a choice between two extremes. If you support criminal justice reform, you’re soft on crime. If you support strong law enforcement, you’re a proponent of mass incarceration. The disenfranchisement of former felons’ voting rights has long been stuck in this frustrating type of political conflict. I’ve written on the subject of criminal justice before. The issue of felon disenfranchisement is no different than pretrial release, as both require a proper balance between strong law enforcement and fair justice systems.
Former felons who have fulfilled their terms of punishment should be given the opportunity to re-enter society and engage in democracy through voting. It is only fair. That being said, there are some fair arguments from those who currently oppose felon re-enfranchisement that need to be addressed either by clarification or policy change going hand in hand with the restoration of voting rights.
Re-Enfranchisement and Re-Entering Society
As a conservative, my approach to felon disenfranchisement comes in contrast with that of my friend on the left advocating for granting both currently incarcerated and former felons the right to vote. Currently incarcerated felons are not members of society while they are in prison. Their harms committed against society or infringements upon another individual’s rights leaves them unentitled to the right to influence society through voting while they are serving out their punishment.
Formerly incarcerated felons are a different story. Felons are released from prison under the reasoning that they have served their time of punishment, undergone rehabilitation, and are ready to re-enter society. While some restrictions upon the formerly incarcerated are necessary to strengthen public safety, like gun ownership and registries for sex offenders, voting is a basic right that allows people to have a say in their representation in government.
Many felons go through the parole process, which is a privilege granted to felons that allows them to be released from prison after serving a portion of their sentences, but under certain conditions. Parolees are usually restricted to live in a certain area, required to participate in rehabilitation programs, and maintain employment. In principle, the parole system is intended to aid in reintegrating former felons into society and keep an eye on them in case they fall back into the criminal path.
Unfortunately, neither prison, parole, or probation guarantees rehabilitation or opportunities for success in society for former felons. The problem of recidivism, meaning a former convict’s relapse into crime, is ever-present. Kentucky’s recidivism rate is around 29% for all former convicts, and 52% for parolees.
Critics of felon re-enfranchisement could point to these numbers and argue that this is reason enough to prevent former felons from voting. This misses the bigger picture. The goal should be to reform our system of rehabilitation and resources for former felons re-entering society, not to restrict the rights of those who manage to find success and move away from criminal activity.
Restricting the rights of a former felon to vote on the basis that many offenders return to prison anyways is unjust, as it punishes a person for crimes they haven’t even committed. There is no guarantee that a former convict will return to prison, and there is no guarantee that a person who has never committed a crime won’t commit one in the future. Playing this guessing game with people’s voting rights is wrong.
Finding the Right Policy Balance
Supporters of felon disenfranchisement will argue that certain felons have committed crimes that are so heinous that they should not be allowed to vote. I’d tend to agree. However, the issue isn’t about restricting their right to vote, it’s the fact that certain offenders should not be re-entering society in the first place.
Kentucky’s highest classes of felonies are punishable by 20-50 years, life in prison, or the death penalty. These felonies include murder, kidnapping resulting in death, child rape, etc. So forget voting – these are people who shouldn’t see the light of day outside of prison. Furthermore, the lifelong trauma faced by rape and sexual abuse survivors should be reason enough to consider the harshest penalties for perpetrators.
While stricter penalties should be considered for such heinous crimes when moving forward with criminal justice reform, crimes facing excessive punishment should also be considered. At the federal level in 2018, the First Step Act was passed under Republican leadership in both the executive and legislative branches. This bill was a much needed shift away from the 1994 Clinton Crime Bill, as it eliminated the mandatory life sentences for Third Strike drug offenders and reformed the arbitrary disparity in sentencing between crack and cocaine possession, which perpetuated mass incarceration.
Ultimately, policy proposals must find the right balance between strong law enforcement and fair justice systems. Strong but smart law enforcement aids in the protection of the community and the proper punishment of criminals. Fair justice allows for second chances for former felons, adequate treatment in the criminal justice system, and opportunities for employment and societal participation upon release. Felon re-enfranchisement, paired with reforms in parole and sentencing, is the right move in creating a balance that is best for all of society.