Congress must pass law that allows former prisoners to vote

As the leader of a prison ministry, I strongly support the Democracy Restoration Act because I know that people can be redeemed. Yet for redemption to impact the nation, people must be restored to their communities, and restoration requires an opportunity – like voting.

REUTERS/Charles Dharapak/Pool
Presidential candidate former Sen. Rick Santorum, left, speaks as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listens in a Republican presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Jan. 16. The two sparred over voting rights for former prisoners.

A tussle between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney in Monday’s GOP primary debate highlighted one issue that too often gets overlooked – restoring the right to vote in federal elections for those with past criminal convictions. As Congress reconvenes this week, lawmakers must get behind a bill that would restore this right to former prisoners living and working in American communities.

As the leader of a large personal discipleship ministry for people in prison and their children, I strongly support the Democracy Restoration Act because I know that people can be redeemed.

Moses and David (both murderers) are notable examples in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But redemption is also a fundamental American concept, one that resonates across all religions and ethnicities. Yet for redemption to impact the nation, people must be restored to their communities, and restoration requires an opportunity.

The Democracy Restoration Act, introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, offers such an opportunity. It gives former prisoners a chance to engage in what is at its core a pro-social act – voting. It gives them a tangible way to demonstrate that they care about their community and their country. And it offers them a chance to align with like-minded citizens to promote common policy goals.

Perhaps most importantly, the legislation invests former prisoners with the responsibility for their community that all Americans have as citizens. The Democracy Restoration Act also gives the United States an opportunity to redeem itself. As a nation, we, too, have made terrible mistakes – the Three Fifths Compromise on counting slaves, slavery itself, and Jim Crow are just a few. But Americans have strived to right those wrongs and to move forward rather than sticking to the unjust policies of the past.

State laws that disenfranchise people with criminal convictions are part of the same shameful history of limiting the franchise. Although some states have taken steps to overcome this history, too many others still deny former prisoners the right to vote. The Democracy Restoration Act is an opportunity to expand participation in the democratic process.

No doubt, some think the criminal justice system is too lenient on offenders. Even those people should recognize, however, that when the criminal justice system has decided that an incarcerated person is ready to rejoin the community, the best course of action is to make re-entry successful.

When former prisoners return to their communities, as the vast majority of incarcerated people do, returning their voice in our democracy will go much further toward bringing about a successful re-entry than continued shunning and stigmatization.  

There are 4 million Americans living and working in our communities who cannot vote because of a criminal conviction in their past. One would hope that common sense and the strong support of law enforcement organizations like the American Probation and Parole Association, the Association of Paroling Authorities International, and the Blacks in Law Enforcement of America, as well as religious organizations like mine, the Crossroad Bible Institute, would inspire members of Congress to give former prisoners the opportunity to redeem themselves.

But we cannot presume that politicians will heed the needs of those who cannot vote. Those who can vote should remember the instruction of Proverbs 31:8 – we must speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves. We must be a voice for the voiceless. And we should speak now, and tell our elected representatives to pass the Democracy Restoration Act.

Dr. H. David Schuringa is the President of the Crossroad Bible Institute and founder of Crossroad Correctional Services, the largest personalized follow-up and discipleship ministry of its kind for people in prison and their children.

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