Criminal justice reform, in all its many forms, seems to be frequently entering the national conversation. With a set of complex problems and no easy or agreed-upon solutions, we need to spend a lot more time discussing the impact these issues have on all of us, even if we don’t know anyone who is or has been incarcerated.
Scratch beneath the black-and-white surface of any criminal justice issue and you quickly find the myriad shades of gray beneath.
Most people across the country probably hadn’t given much thought to whether those in prison for committing felonies should retain their right to vote in local, state and federal elections. That is, until Vermont’s junior senator ruffled feathers from sea to shining sea by suggesting that those with felony records, no matter how abhorrent, should never lose their right to vote — even while in prison.
I’m compelled to mention that Bernie Sanders is Vermont’s “junior” senator because it seems absurd that a 77-year-old man who has been in Washington, D.C., for nearly 30 years, 13 of those as a U.S. senator, could possibly be our junior senator. That’s not fake news; it’s just difficult to believe.
When Bernie voiced this opinion last week, people were shocked to learn that Vermont and Maine both allow people serving their sentences in prison to vote. Vermont goes as far as to allow inmates serving sentences in other states to vote by absentee ballot in their Vermont town of residence.
Why don’t any of us remember this happening? Well, it’s because it’s always been this way. It’s in the Vermont Constitution. Vermont merely requires voters to be of “quiet and peaceable behavior.” Fortunately, most of us fall into that category most of the time — including those who are incarcerated.
Several states are currently debating bills related to restoring the right to vote after a sentence has been served, or when someone with a felony record is on parole or probation. Restoring voting rights is still controversial, and part of that is, of course, political, but the “restore” side is making progress.
The right to vote while in prison is a far larger can of worms. But the lid’s off now, so it’s a good time for the rest of the country to start figuring out what they’re going to do with it.
I can appreciate the opposing arguments on the issue. The “lose your right to vote” argument is straightforward; you committed a felony and have been removed from society as punishment. Part of that punishment is, in addition to losing your freedom, losing other rights, including the right to vote. After all, you weren’t abiding by the rules of society, so why should you be allowed to help make decisions about how society will function or help choose the people who will make laws?
The simplicity of that argument has appeal, as does its black-and-white sheen of moral clarity, but again, there is a whole lot of gray when you scratch the surface.
Where someone comes down on this issue is generally closely related to what they believe the purpose of prison is. Punishment? Rehabilitation? Both? Your stance is also likely to be influenced by your general degree of faith that our criminal justice system is, well, just.
You don’t have to look very hard to see the injustice in our justice system. If you are poor, a person of color, particularly black, live in an area with higher-than-average crime rates, have a parent who is or has been incarcerated, struggle with substance abuse, suffered childhood trauma — the list goes on — Americans who fit one, some, or all of these criteria have a far greater chance of being incarcerated and often serve longer sentences than middle-class and wealthy white Americans.
I was in high school in 1986 when the War on Drugs led to federal mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug sales. There is plenty of blame to go around on this one. Those laws were passed with the support of Democrats and Republicans.
Since that time, the number of people in federal prisons has nearly quadrupled. Almost half of those inmates are in for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes and 75 percent are black or Hispanic. Most are poor. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2012, the majority of inmates incarcerated for selling small quantities of crack cocaine had sentences of at least 10 years — even the first-time offenders.
The majority of Democrats and many Republicans in Congress seem now to recognize that it was both wrong and counterproductive to incarcerate huge numbers of young, black men for a decade or more on low-level, nonviolent offenses.
Here is where we get back to stripping people of their right to vote while in prison. Losing the vote meant losing any power they had to make change or even feel they had the ability to influence the very decisions that permanently, and unjustly, altered their lives.
Instead of using time in prison to build positive relationships between these people, primarily men, and their communities, fathers were removed from their children’s lives for a decade or more and breadwinners were lost, spiraling families further into poverty. Communities were devastated as one young man after another disappeared into the prison system for years while white Americans were getting slaps on the wrist for dealing equal amounts and more of powder cocaine. Deeper distrust of the criminal justice system developed in minority communities, and for good reason; the system didn’t deserve their trust.
Depending on the criminal offense, particularly if it is a violent offense, time removed from society through incarceration makes sense. What does not make sense is the belief that stripping everything that connects people to their communities and our larger society is somehow going to increase the likelihood that they will be successful when they are released.
The more healthy connections that can be maintained and newly established while a person is serving their sentence, the greater the likelihood for success when that person is released.
Some might see voter education and registration drives in prison as undeserved kindnesses. I can accept people feel that way, but I don’t understand it. As a society, we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens to work to address the issues that led to their incarceration in the first place. If you cannot support that concept out of empathy, support those efforts because it’s the self-serving thing to do. It is in everyone’s best interest for people re-entering our communities from prison be successful, contributing members of society.
And honestly, most of us didn’t even know, notice or care that Vermont has always allowed prisoners to vote. The number of incarcerated citizens is not so high that their votes are going to change the outcomes of elections. And if the numbers ever do climb so high that inmates’ votes can change those outcomes, then they probably should.
Lisa Senecal is co-founder of The Maren Group, a writer, and member of the Vermont Commission on Women. She lives in Stowe and is a Vermont native.