Eric Holder, made news on Monday, when he called for a more humane and a more pragmatic approach to criminal justice saying in part: ”As a society, we pay much too high a price whenever our system fails to deliver outcomes that deter and punish crime, keep us safe, and ensure that those who have paid their debts have the chance to become productive citizens.”
Here here. Those reforms will not only save us money, they will keep us safer because we all benefit when those who break our laws can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into our society. We all benefit when we treat those who break our laws as citizens and human beings rather than just as criminals.
And yet, for millions who have served their debt to society, there is no possibility of reintegration, no possibility of feeling like a full citizen with a real stake in our democracy because that most cherished and basic democratic right..the right to vote…has been permanently stripped away from them.
Thirty-five states restrict the voting rights of people who were previously incarcerated, leading to the disenfranchisement of 5.3 million people. It won’t surprise you to learn that the impact of this disenfranchisement falls most heavily on men of color. In fact, across the country, 13% of black men have lost their right to vote. Just as racial profiling and harsh mandatory minimum sentencing tears at the fabric of our communities, denying access to the ballot to millions leads to a sense that they are not full members of our nation.
Here too though, we are seeing a shift in mindset, even among Republicans. My home state of Virginia has historically had one of the worst records on allowing convicted felons to vote. Virginia mandates a two-year waiting period before felons can even apply for restoration of their voting rights. To his credit, Gov. Bob McDonnell has used his executive authority to automate the restoration of voting rights for most non-violent felons, a move that could restore the right to vote to over 100,000 people. This is an important step forward. It is only a first step, not the final one.
How must it feel to know that you are not permitted to exercise your basic right and responsibility as a citizen of this country? How would it change YOUR mindset to be living in a country that thought so little of you, that you’re not even allowed to cast a ballot and raise your small voice in our great democracy? It’s tough to imagine. Here’s what Linda Steele says about how empowering it was for her to have her voting rights restored:
I’ve been battling substance abuse for 30 years and have been in and out of prison all of my life. But I’ve been out, and clean, for more than four years. My life has completely changed. And on Nov. 4, with millions of Americans, I had a say about what happens in our country. There were tears in my eyes as I waited to vote. I felt like I was finally a productive member of society. I’ve never before felt like I could make a difference in terms of what happens around me. But I walked out of the polling place on Election Day feeling like I mattered, that I made a difference. I realized how far I’ve come. Amazing.
Amazing indeed, Linda. We need more stories like that. We’re on the march, but that march has a long way to go.