In a speech on Tuesday, US Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. took aim at 11 states that still restrict voting rights for ex-felons. He asked them to restore this fundamental civil right to those who have paid their legal debt to society for their crimes.
The issue, said America’s chief law enforcement official, is “about who we are as a nation.”
Restoration of voting rights for those who have done their time has become a measure of how much Americans treat ex-convicts as capable of redemption and deserving of forgiveness. The attorney general seeks a rebalancing of the various purposes of justice, which include retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, restitution, and mercy.
Currently, about 2 percent of Americans cannot enter a voting booth because of their post-prison sanctions. About 38 percent are black. Yet, as Mr. Holder noted, citing a study by Florida’s parole board, former inmates who are allowed to vote are less likely to commit another crime.
For that reason alone, the 11 states – Arizona, Florida, Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Wyoming, Tennessee, and Virginia – should rethink their restrictions on voting rights.
Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow inmates to vote while in prison, a practice common in many developed countries. Along with the District of Columbia, 37 states bar both inmates and those on parole or probation from casting a ballot.
States can certainly take away a criminal’s right to liberty. But they should not as easily take away a right to citizenship. An essential part of reconnecting ex-felons to a community is to treat them with the same dignity as anyone else. Voting is the great equalizer in a democracy. It helps former inmates by lifting a stigma and lessening their isolation. It helps keep them on the path of rehabilitation.
Except for people serving life sentences, subjecting ex-felons to the perpetual punishment of being nonvoters sends a message that they are forever irredeemable. With more than 650,000 prisoners released in the United States every year, such a message has consequences.
One task of the justice system is to help criminals take responsibility for their crime as a first step toward living within the law. In offering an affirmative act of citizenship, such as voting, states can help them do that.
Restoring the right to vote should not be as much as a reward an incentive. Even if ex-felons don’t use it, they’ll get the message that they can participate fully in society.