The arc of post-prison forgiveness

Kentucky’s move to restore voting rights for many former prisoners reflects a deeper reform in criminal justice.

Singer songwriter John Legend, left, greets Carmen Brown who was the first person called up in a court hearing aimed at restoring her right to vote under Florida's Amendment 4, Nov. 8, 2019, in Miami.

As his first major act in office, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear helped a group that didn’t vote for him. The group didn’t have that option.

On Dec. 12, Mr. Beshear signed an executive order that restored the right to vote and to hold public office to more than 140,000 Kentuckians who had finished their sentences for criminal convictions. “By restoring these voting rights, we declare that everyone counts in Kentucky,” he said. “We all matter.”

The decision follows a wave of reenfranchisements that has swept the country in the last two decades. Almost half the nation’s states have passed similar legislation since 1997, restoring voting rights to more than 1.5 million Americans. Iowa is now alone in withholding an automatic right to vote from former felons upon leaving prison.

For Kentucky, the executive order is not a small matter. The state has had the third-highest disenfranchisement rate in the country. One in 10 of its citizens couldn’t vote, including 1 in 4 African Americans. Those seeking to regain their right had to individually apply to the governor. Now that right will be restored automatically. People who complete their sentences will again be citizens in full.

More broadly, the governor’s decision is significant in where it stops. The second section of the order states that it applies only to those convicted of nonviolent offenses. So while received as an act of forgiveness, Mr. Beshear’s order shows that forgiveness too has its limits. Not everyone counts.

Who deserves a second chance? The question is gaining attention in an age in which criminal justice reform has become a bipartisan issue. It’s easy for most to forgive those convicted of low-level drug offenses – as Oklahoma did in November. But forgiving those who commit violent crimes or sex offenses is a thornier issue. In fact, the previous governor, Matt Bevin, was widely criticized for pardoning more than 400 convicts, some sentenced for murder and rape, before he left office.

As reformers attempt to refocus the criminal justice system on rehabilitation, Americans will need to decide who they think deserves rehabilitation. Research shows sex offenders re-offend at lower rates than those convicted of many other crimes, such as theft. The extremely abhorrent nature of their crime, though, makes it easy to understand why many worry about blanket reintegration – and may prefer no reintegration at all. How do you maintain rights of those who served their time and still protect your community? The question is still open.

One reason that criminal justice reform has become so popular is a large share of Americans have had a loved one in prison at some point. Such an experience can create avenues for empathy.

The wave of reenfranchisements may do just the same. Former felons vote at disproportionately low rates, but as questions of reform and forgiveness gain prominence, their past experiences will become more valuable. To create a more compassionate and restorative prison system, it may help to ask for ideas from those who have been in prison. At least now, in most places, they can put their opinions into action at the voting booth or as a political candidate. 

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