by PINAR GOKTAS
In a recent CNN town hall, Sen. Bernie Sanders set himself apart from other Democratic candidates by unapologetically stating his stance that all incarcerated individuals should be allowed to vote, as is the law in his home state of Vermont. Trump and other conservative politicians have immediately criticized Sanders for this stance and questioned whether individuals like the Boston bomber should be allowed to vote.
This counter is problematic because, statistically speaking, the majority of incarcerated individuals do not commit such serious crimes. Almost half of federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses, while 55 (quite literally 0.0% of federal inmates) are serving time for national security threats. When Trump and his supporters point out extreme examples like the Boston bomber, the public receives a skewed picture of what the average prisoner looks like. This in turn portrays suffrage for incarcerated individuals as a radical belief dangerous to the fabric of society instead of an infringement on a civil right. Claiming that some people are unfit to vote by representing the entire population as dangerous extremists is an overdone and overplayed argument that has time and time again been disproved. Resistance against women’s suffrage in the early nineteenth century is a great example. Suffragists were portrayed as aggressive and bitter women who would all inevitably harass and demean men once they gained the right to vote. Just as not permitting women to vote prevented women having status as full citizens, stripping incarcerated individuals of voting rights ultimately means stripping them of an aspect of their political personhood. This further implies there is fundamentally something different about them as compared to the average citizen. That is, incarcerated individuals are portrayed as somehow Other. In reality, the average prisoner’s policy priorities are not the destruction of the fabric of American society, but the same social and economic well-being for themselves and their families that all citizens desire. There is nothing inherently different or harmful about how prisoners would vote as compared to non-convicts which could justify preventing them from expressing and facilitating their political interest.
Additionally, the added aspect of social alienation that comes from confiscating civil rights is an unnecessary and potentially counterproductive accessory punishment. As Presidential candidate Sanders expressed, incarcerated individuals already get punished sufficiently through the act of imprisonment. If the purpose of incarceration is to prevent felons from repeating their criminal activity, then allowing prisoners to vote is an excellent way to ease the integration process back into civilian life, which in turn prevents the sense of ostracization that could cause another relapse from adhering to societal norms. In fact, prison staff in states where incarcerated individuals are allowed to vote have noticed that “voting plays a positive role in keeping prisoners connected to the outside world” and that “voting can also help dissipate the isolation and alienation many prisoners feel”. Thus, allowing felons to vote can reduce recidivism by easing the rehabilitation process for incarcerated individuals upon release from prison, leading to less crime in the long-term.
The issue is also one of democratic representation. Voter suppression of prisoners may account for why the conditions of prisons are so inhumane. A recent study done by the Department of Justice on Alabama, a state in which incarcerated individuals do not have the right to vote, prisons found the conditions to be cruel and unusual. Prisoners in Alabama state prisons are regularly exposed to prisoner-on-prisoner and staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse in addition to physical violence. It is uncertain whether the appropriate reforms to make these prison conditions more humane will be implemented, but it is clear that granting prisoners voting rights could stimulate prison reform efforts and ensure that elected officials are properly and consistently held accountable for the state of the criminal justice system. Imprisoned people could also provide important perspectives on certain niche policy areas neglected by the average citizen, like drug, bail and sentencing policy.
The concern of felon voter suppression is particularly salient when considering the historical and contemporary racial and socioeconomic prejudices that play a role in the makeup of American prisons today. Felon disenfranchisement laws spread as a form of African-American political suppression during the Jim Crow era. Accordingly, racial minorities are overrepresented in federal prison composing 13.4% of the U.S. population, but 37.7% of the federal inmate population. Furthermore, black Americans are four times more likely to be disenfranchised because of former prison convictions as compared to other Americans. The reason so many black Americans remain disenfranchised is because of felon disenfranchisement laws that include prohibitions on voting even after convicts have completed their sentences. Historically speaking, the existence of these laws and their detrimental effect on the black American community is highly intentional. Alongside literacy tests and poll taxes, felon disenfranchisement laws were meant to supplement Jim Crow laws to prevent blacks from voting, going as far to include disenfranchisement punishments primarily for crimes perceived to more likely to be committed by blacks. The use of former felon disenfranchisement laws show historical precedent for how any form of disenfranchisement can be used as a means of oppression.
Furthermore, the single largest offense of federal prisoners, drug-related crime, is a byproduct of the Nixon administration’s “war on drugs”. The reason almost half of federal inmates are in for drug-related crimes is because of the increase in sentence severity for nonviolent drug offenses, causing the prison population for such offenses to balloon from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. Furthermore, the war on drugs disproportionately affects black individuals. This stems from historical reasons, like the Nixon administration’s severely higher sentence for possession of crack in comparison to powder cocaine, as African-American communities were more likely to use crack. The majority of individuals who are incarcerated for drug-related crimes who would gain the right to vote would be exercising a right that would never have been threatened had they been born a few decades ago. The racial and socioeconomic disparities between the average American and the average felon mean that felon voter suppression is not just a criminal justice issue, but an extension of broader social injustices against minorities in the U.S.
Perhaps some of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates at the CNN town hall were hesitant about expressing their stance on allowing incarcerated individuals the vote because of how radical the reform sounds to the average American. However, giving prisoners the right to vote is not against the interest or safety of the average American, as it may initially appear to be, but a small step to create a more inclusive and accurate civic definition of who the average American is.
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