Politics and People's Lives

Voting Rights and Ex-Prisoners

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Politics is a full-contact sport, but we’ve got to stop playing games with peoples' lives.

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Chuck  Colson

Long after they are released from prison, long after they have “paid their debt to society,” ex-prisoners continue to pay the price for their crimes. As highlighted recently in an excellent article in the New York Times by Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura, ex-offenders struggle to find employment, can be barred from public housing, and even be denied grants for tuition.

And many are denied the right to vote, sometimes for life. That topic was pulled into the national spotlight last week during the heat of the presidential campaign.

A Political Action Committee supporting Mitt Romney blasted Rick Santorum because Santorum voted in the senate to restore the voting rights of ex-prisoners. The issue resurfaced in the South Carolina debate, with a heated exchange between the candidates.

Trying to prove who’s tough on crime and who’s not has long been a part of political campaigns. Who can forget the infamous Willie Horton case back in 1988? But as I wrote in the Washignton Post today, I thought we’d outgrown playing political football with people’s lives! Well, sadly I was wrong.

Since my White House days I have never publicly endorsed or opposed a political candidate, and I will not now. But I must speak out because it is appalling when candidates try to demonize an entire class of people — in this case ex-prisoners — to score political points.

Now, voting doesn’t pose a threat to public safety. Sound criminal justice policy has always held that the goal of punishment and rehabilitation is to turn ex-offenders into responsible citizens. And once they show that they can be responsible, there can be no justification — besides scoring political points — for refusing to restore their civil rights.

Restoring voting rights is an important way society can signal ex-prisoners that they have repaid their debt to society and may now participate as equal citizens. Allowing ex-prisoners to vote costs the taxpayer nothing. But being able to walk into a voting booth, and to re-join the body politic, means a lot to ex-prisoners.

I know. I went to federal prison for my role in Watergate. I served less than a year. But it took 30 years to get my voting rights restored. But forget about me, what about a young man convicted of a few minor drug offenses. Once he grown up and proven himself a productive citizen, should he be punished for life because of youthful indiscretions?

Folks, it’s not just voting rights. Look at the political flap in Mississippi over Governor Haley Barbour’s recent pardons. Yes, I understand that granting pardons can cause pain for victims and their families. But historically, the power of pardon has been used by the executive to correct the mistakes of an imperfect justice system or to extend forgiveness to those who have been rehabilitated. Sadly, it’s also an easy target for political demagoguery.

As I wrote in the Post, I know politics is bare-knuckled game, but demonizing an entire class of Americans for electoral gain is wrong. And if we want these ex-offenders to become contributing members of the community, we should not kick the bottom rungs off the difficult ladder they have to climb.

Come to BreakPoint.org and we’ll link you to my Washington Post op-ed on this issue.


Further Reading and Information

Paying a Price, Long After the Crime
Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura | New York Times | January 9, 2012

Why punish ex-offenders with a voting ban?

Charles W. Colson | Washington Post | January 20, 2012



Mr. Kevin, Long prison terms are not necesarily the answer, in fact it a psrt of the problem! American prisons simply get the felon off the streets but do not "convert" the prisoner from a criminal mindset.

I was referring to social stigma and it's use in controlling behavior. When I was a kid, for example, for a teenager to become pregnant was the ultimate shame. Young girls feared the consequences that knew would result because they saw how those who had fallen were treated. Is social ostracism fair? Perhaps not but it is a powerful tool to preserve social cohesion. Today we see the results of the relaxation of those social constraints and one of the indirect results is the massive prevalence of abortion.
Societies just like parents must often practice tough love.
I love Chuck Colsen like a brother, he's a former Marine and god-fearing gentleman but that doesn't erase the acts that sent him to prison. Chuck has become a witness to all of the effects that follow breaking the law, and also of how to regain a place in society.
You've made a very good case for sending criminals to prison. As for "ongoing consequences for severely deviant behavior," isn't that addressed by varying lengths of prison sentences based on the nature of the crime (including never freeing the worst offenders)? Those prison terms, along with subsequent probation, are supposed to be the punishment.

What more do you want? What would satisfy you? If you decide to answer, I would ask that you not speak about convicts in a general way, as it is too easy to be cold and harsh when we dehumanize the targets. Please speak specifically about Chuck Colson. Why do you believe his time in prison, the resulting stigma, the suspension of his life, and the many post-incarceration difficulties he faced aren't enough punishment? What purpose would be served by not allowing Chuck Colson to vote? What more do you believe Chuck Colson should have to go through?
Some acts have eternal consequences
Our actions have consequences. Some actions result in lifelong infirmity. We make choices and then must live with those consequences. Societies that are sustainable establish social taboos and boundaries for the preservation of the both the social order and to inhibit behavior that threatens the whole.

This is both normal and necessary indeed it is Biblical. In Exodus and Leviticus we find numerous examples of behaviors that require the perpetrator to be “cut off from his people.” The Bible speaks of the land being defiled by the actions of a few, the effects of which touch all. A community is an organism, a composite of individuals who must voluntarily restrain themselves within those boundaries in order for the whole to remain healthy. A society must therefore establish consequences commensurate with actions which threaten the whole. A society that hasn’t the courage to establish those consequences is destined for anarchy.
As part of the social contract by which we experience freedom there is also the requirement that we act responsibly and in conformity to both legal codes and social mores. Those who violate either have broken the social contract and forfeited the benefits derived from it. The deprivations of rights and privileges act as a constant reminder to those who have lost them that even greater restraints will be imposed if other violations are made.

This cycle is not cruel or callous, merely a reflection of reality. The laws of God and men are like the natural laws, gravity for example, in that the consequences must be consistent and unbending if social cohesion is to be maintained.
As much as our hearts yearn to bring the wayward back into the fold there must be, in this life, ongoing consequences for severely deviant behavior lest the behavior spread.
Our Christian Nation
Americans are governed by a retributivist conception of criminal justice. Why should we expect otherwise in our "Christian nation"? People judge that a murderer shouldn't be allowed to vote. They've been raised to believe that liars, gluttons and homosexuals deserve to burn in hell for all of eternity. So it doesn't surprise me at all.
Couldn't agree more.
Life is tough enough for ex-cons, due to the stigma (among other things). We don't need to use the law to kick these people around after they've paid for their crimes.
Sad posturing
Apparently there is no limit to paying one's "debt to society", even if the principles of justice says that there is. One wonders if, in the attempt to be all things to all people, whether Mr. Romney hasn't taken a page from Jimmy Carter's book in backing the wrong horse, so to speak.