Wednesday, March 5, 2014

My Cousin Can't Vote

By Chandler James (Equal Rights) - My cousin was recently released from prison with little fanfare and a crude ceremony. My dad and I drove six hours to pick him up, enduring a brutal winter blizzard to warmly welcome him to a life of freedom. He was all smiles when he saw us at the gates, presumably just as happy to see familiar faces as he was to exit the guarded fortress that he called home for more than 2 years. The drive home was a cordial experience. We talked about relatives who had gone on to do great things, about friends who had married since his conviction, and about loved ones we lost since he had been gone. We were more than happy to have him back with us, but we were worried about his prospects, and so was he. The conversation soured when we asked him what he was going to do for money. “Nothing,” he said, “I can’t do nothing.” What could we tell him? It was probably true. Our society is particularly vengeful toward convicted felons. Felons are denied many forms of employment, access to government programs, and in many states, they are denied the right to vote. Civic participation is key to our democracy, yet felons have a diminutive voice in the democratic process. Like many convicted felons, my cousin can’t vote. 

Nearly 3% of America’s population is under the supervision of the American judicial system. The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation in the world. Of the near 7 million people under judicial supervision, African-American’s make up 38% of that number. The percentage of African-Americans in prison is significantly disproportionate to the percentage of African-Americans in the population (about 13%). Largely convicted of drug and gang related crimes, black men have a 1 in 3 chance of being heralded away to prison in their lifetimes, according to statistics by the Bureau of Justice. Felony convictions have long led to corresponding voter disenfranchisement, to the detriment of many black voting interests. 

Enfranchisement and democratic participation is key to what makes America great. French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his widely read work, Democracy in America, detailed the distinct nature of American society. Sociologist, Seymour Martin Lipset described the American way, quite distinct from Europe, as American Exceptionalism. Tocqueville, too, considered the United States exceptional. America was exceptional, Tocqueville posited, because of its egalitarian spirit. Democracy in America was effective because of the associations that bound men together and represented the interests of the individual. These associations which fomented civic participation were key to the democratic process. Ostensibly unequal in Tocqueville's approximation are blacks, and if you ask many people today, they might say the same thing. Blacks have historically voted at much lower levels than whites. Despite America’s progress in racial equality, the large of amounts of blacks that populate U.S. prisons suggests that we have not come far enough when it comes to political equality. 

I don’t necessarily believe that the American political system is stocked to the brim with racists. I do believe, however, that politics have perpetuated a systemically racist judicial system that strips many impoverished blacks of their right to vote. These poor men, with no political voice, are lost in the shuffle and their interests are ignored. That’s a key reason that the system remains as it is. Formerly imprisoned black men have nothing to offer politicians once they are out, and thus have no means to effect substantive change in the political arena. It’s paramount that our felons are given the right to vote once they serve their time and repay their debt to society. Enfranchising convicted felons will lead to decreased levels of recidivism. If involved involved in the democratic process, felons will integrate more intimately in society and imbue the political system with ideas and leaders that promote their particular interests. At an increased rate, felons will turn to legitimate employment because the system will correspondingly address their concerns and aspiration for humanity and foment their transition from felon to good citizen. It’s time to treat former prisoners better, giving them their humanity and citizenship back once they get out. Let my cousin vote. Give my cousin a second a chance, he’s an American just like us. 

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