Columns, Opinion

American Protest: Prison reform starts with enfranchisement of felons

With one month until the election, I think everyone is feeling slightly anxious and overwhelmed as the final countdown begins. Everywhere I go, I see signs and advertisements urging me to vote. 

Honestly, it’s kind of tiring how often voting gets shoved in my face, especially since I have been registered for an absentee ballot for months now. I have voted by mail since I got to college three years ago, so I am not really the target audience for these messages.

However, there are people who do need this encouragement.

In the past, I have vocalized my anger toward those who choose not to vote. People refrain from voting for various reasons: the candidate of their choice is not in the running, maybe, or they do not agree on every issue with either one of the candidates who are.

I have discussed how these people are not only privileged but also will be a contributing factor to another four years of President Donald Trump if they choose to not vote this fall. Four more years of Trump would be detrimental to both the environment and those who are less privileged. People of color, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and the chronically ill are some of the people who cannot afford another term with this administration.

Constant reminders to vote are important for those who originally did not feel compelled to participate in this election. That said, I fear that we are leaving out a group of people who may want to participate in politics but are barred from doing so because they have lost their rights. 

More than 6.1 million Americans cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement, according to the Sentencing Project. This number is far too high and leaves out too many voices that should be contributing to our democracy. And even when a felon is allowed to vote, they face major barriers to regaining their constitutional rights. 

Activist groups such as the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in Florida are working to fix this. Florida passed a ballot measure in 2018 that restored the right to vote for as many as 1.4 million former felons. The measure excluded those charged with murder or sexual offenses. 

This appears to be a great amendment that allows those who have “done their time” to get their vote back and transition back into being a member of American society once more. After all, rehabilitation tends to be the goal after release. 

Unfortunately, Republican lawmakers quickly passed legislation requiring former felons to pay outstanding fines or court fees to obtain the rights granted by the ballot measure. 

It’s difficult to believe these new barriers were erected for the purpose of anything other than preventing the potential boost Democrats would gain from the votes of these former felons, many of whom are disproportionately people of color and from poorer areas. These groups traditionally vote for the more progressive party, which would be Democrats. 

As the Prison Policy Initiative points out, “these racial disparities are particularly stark for Black Americans, who make up 40% of the incarcerated population despite representing only 13% of U.S. residents.” 

The disenfranchisement of incarcerated people and former felons silences a large portion of America’s voice. Incarcerated individuals deserve their vote back — especially since so many are locked up for minor charges. 

Annually, an estimated 13 million misdemeanor charges — for harmless actions such as sitting on a sidewalk or jaywalking — put Americans behind bars, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. 

Once you are in the system, it is difficult to fully leave it behind, even with good behavior. 

Policies such as probation and parole oftentimes send people back to jail. The constant surveillance by the state, typically with electronic monitors, can make former felons feel as though they are still in jail, which contributes to further ostracization and prevents them from fully rejoining society.

Our country has become too focused on punishing people within the carceral state rather than rehabilitating them back into society after they have done something wrong. It is time for massive prison reform, and that starts by letting those who are affected by the criminal justice system have a voice in politics. 

How are we supposed to fix the prison system if we do not let those who are directly impacted have a say?

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