Florida news outlets – including the Miami Herald with a front page story this week – have been reporting on felon voting rights. Mostly these stories have focused on the political ramifications of either having felons on the voting rolls or purging their names from them, which is relevant considering the national election cycle is ramping up. The conclusions are predictable: because the incarceration rate for minority groups is disproportionately high, and because those groups tend to register and vote Democratic, the exclusion or inclusion of post-release felons in the civic electoral process either helps or hurts the incumbent party (in Florida, the Republican Party).
Florida’s news outlets have done a good job examining the political angles, but in this recent spate of articles they haven’t asked the important question.
As a company that actively encourages engagement between incarcerated individuals and their communities on the outside (through our money transfer, inmate email, and video visitation services – all designed for the friends and families of inmates), this is a question we at JPay might ask.
Why should individuals convicted of a felony in the state of Florida, and who have served their sentences to the satisfaction of their supervising agencies, not have their voting rights restored? Why should someone who has paid their debt to society be prevented from fully reentering that society, particularly its civil discourse?
Isn’t that what we would all hope for from a rehabilitative correctional system – that it would help guide an individual who exhibited at least one instance of antisocial behavior (a crime) toward a life of engagement with society? Instead, in Florida, we seem to say that the commission of a felony – any felony – forever prevents an individual from having a voice in the political process.
There’s a term for that. It’s called felon disenfranchisement, and it’s actually pretty rare.
Florida, until 2010, was one of just four states to permanently bar ex-felons from voting. Recently, the state simplified its clemency laws, making it easier for men and women who have successfully completed felony sentences to apply to have their civil rights restored. But the application process is still judged on an individual basis, putting Florida in a group of just 11 states that make the restitution of basic voting rights an exercise in bureaucratic hoop-jumping. Thirty-seven states – the vast majority – automatically restore voting rights after the completion of a felony sentence. Two states, Maine and Vermont, never deprive convicted criminals of their voting rights in the first place.
What effect has this large-scale disenfranchisement had on Florida (or the other 10 states with draconian post-release voting laws) from a corrections/criminal justice perspective? If you view the deprivation of voting rights as an extension of the ‘punishment’ a felon receives for committing his or her crime, then it certainly fails as a deterrent: disenfranchisement actually increases the likelihood of future criminal involvement. In fact, among people with prior conviction records, only 12.1 per thousand of voters were rearrested, compared to 26.6 per thousand non-voters.* Civic engagement, it seems, is a more effective deterrent against recidivism than the threat of additional sentencing.
Several civic-minded organizations, including the Leadership Conference, the Prison Policy Initiative, and the Sentencing Project, have put forward strong philosophical arguments against felon disenfranchisement. Many of these arguments are rooted in the racially disproportionate nature of the criminal justice system, but all of them revolve around the concept of fairness. It is inherently unjust to have a blanket ban on civic participation for life when each individual infraction carries a unique correctional sentence. If society, through the institution of laws and judicial process, has determined that a certain period of incarceration (or probation, or parole) is sufficient punishment for a given crime, then that punishment should end there. As the Leadership Conference puts it, “When someone has fully and irreversibly paid his debt to society, it is of the utmost importance that society returns the favor by restoring back to him his right to vote.”
Why, then, does Florida persist in its policy to deny the right to vote to former felons? Perhaps the Florida media outlets had the right take on this topic to start with: it’s all political.
** Chin, Gabriel J., Felon Disenfranchisement and Democracy in the Late Jim Crow Era. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 5, p. 329, 2007; Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 07-31. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1075642