Previous blog posts have looked at injustices perpetrated against groups such as children, immigrants, and victims of lead paint poisoning. This post, however, discusses a different group: felons. You may be asking, what injustices are impacting felons? After all, these individuals have injured neighbor and society. A deeper examination, however, reveals that felons are often the target of a variety of injustices, particularly as they are released from incarceration and re-enter society. The attention of this post will be focused on “felony disenfranchisement”—the denial of voting rights to released felons.
An estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws barring convicted felons from voting. Voting, as defined by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is “the cornerstone of our democracy and the fundamental right upon which all our civil liberties rest.” Thus, nearly six million Americans are banned from participating in the democratic process. This is an injustice because these felons have already paid their debts—they have served their time and are now returning to their communities. Yet, they are being treated as second class citizens who are expected to live in a society that is not allowing them access to all of its rights and privileges. Said succinctly: an isolated and vulnerable group is being denied a fundamental, democratic right because of previous mistakes.
Abrogating voting rights as a punishment is an ancient device, dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, yet we continue to wield it in the 21st Century. Perhaps this is an outdated punishment, perhaps not. Regardless, it hardly seems fair to release a felon and expect them to immediately reintegrate into society while at the same time denying one of the “fundamental” means of participating in that society—voting.
This is not a “soft on crime” stance; this is recognition of the fact that felons who have been released from incarceration—either for completing their sentence, for parole, or for probation—have completed their judicially prescribed punishment. The continued absence of voting rights upon the completion of a sentence silently extends the punishment period, continuing the segregation of the felon from the society they are being told to rejoin. Felony disenfranchisement is one of several “collateral consequences” that stifle felon’s job opportunities, civic participation, and eligibility for public benefits. These roadblocks help keep recidivism high and prevent felons from reintegrating.
Fortunately, in recent years, states have increasingly backed the rights of felons to vote upon completion of their terms of incarceration. Maryland has been the most recent to make this a reality. When the State Senate overrode Governor Hogan’s veto of SB340/HB980 it paved the way for 40,000 Maryland felons to regain the right to vote. Specifically, it extended the right to vote to all felons who have been released from incarceration, including those on parole and probation. In doing so, one obstacle to reintegration was eliminated. The victory for voting rights in Maryland was the result of a number of organizations that lead a successful grassroots campaign.
The success in Maryland seems to strike the best balance for rectifying this injustice. Felons still lose their voting right while incarcerated, yet upon release they regain that right. Although they may be serving a parole or probation, it is only fair for them to regain the rights of an average citizen. While on parole or probation felons are expected to swiftly begin the reintegration process, why should they not swiftly be reintegrated into the electorate?
Many other states, however, continue to deny felons the right to vote until they have completed parole and probation or have served a multi-year waiting period. Some felons will forever be banned from voting. Those wishing to support the fight to expand voting rights for felons can contribute to organizations such as The Sentencing Project which research and advocate for sentencing reform. If you find yourself passionately dedicated to the cause of felon voting rights the best action is direct action in state’s still abrogating felon voting rights. Research and contact local groups advocating for felon’s voting rights to learn more about how you can be of help in that specific state.
 The Sentencing Project, http://sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=133; American Civil Liberties Union, https://www.aclu.org/issues/voting-rights.
 National Conference of State Legislatures, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx.
 Nicole D. Porter, “The State of Sentencing 2015 Developments in Policy and Practice,” (Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project, 2016), (http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/State-of-Sentencing-2015.pdf, accessed March 27, 2016).
 Erin Cox, “Released Felons Gain the Right to Vote in Maryland after Veto Override,” (Baltimore, M.D.: The Baltimore Sun, 2016) (http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/bs-md-felons-voting-20160209-story.html accessed March 27, 2016).
 National Coalition of State Legislatures, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx.