OPINION: For a more just justice system, start with reinstating the vote

Graphic by Emma Li SC ’21

Though the Constitution originally allowed states to determine who had the right to vote, there have been important moments in our history that have led the United States to standardize certain requirements. We now find ourselves confronting yet another of these issues requiring a constitutional amendment: felon disenfranchisement.

The method used for all 27 constitutional amendments calls for two-thirds of the House of Representatives and Senate to introduce an amendment that then three-fourths of state legislatures affirm.

The destruction of bipartisanship and the demonization of opposing parties in U.S. politics over the past couple of decades have led some to question whether there will ever be another constitutional amendment. Still, that should be no excuse not to advocate for the bipartisanship such an amendment would require.

If anything, college-aged students set a precedent in 1971 by successfully advocating for the 26th Amendment. As part of the larger Vietnam War protests, it brought the age requirement for voting down from 21 to 18 years old.

A person convicted of a felony crime in Maine has a vastly different experience than a person convicted of that same crime in Iowa. The Iowan will have to complete an arduous process through the governor’s office in order to see a ballot again, while the Mainer won’t have their voting rights impeded even when serving out their sentence. In between these two extremes, some states restore voting rights upon release, after parole, or after probation.

While some make the argument that prisoners violated a social contract and shouldn’t elect leaders for a society to which they have shown a disregard, the practice undermines the very purpose of having a fair criminal justice system.

Our system claims it aims to rehabilitate those incarcerated and not exact retribution upon them. There exists a number of fundamental flaws in the present day that call into question the validity of that claim, most notably mass incarceration, racial disparities, and overzealous prosecutors, but felon disenfranchisement carries its own detriments.

Another argument claims that former felons would simply vote for candidates who, if elected, would loosen laws pertaining to the crime they committed. This argument falls apart when one considers that no candidate could hope to be successful advocating for a platform encouraging criminal behavior.

As students preparing to contribute to American society, we have an obligation to call into question a system that allows the United States to have the highest incarceration rate in the world, at 716 per 100,000 people.

High recidivism rates contribute considerably to keeping this rate high since over three out of every four inmates find themselves re-arrested within five years of release.

While many factors certainly contribute to this phenomenon, preventing nearly 5.4 million Americans from voting in 2012 “reinforc[es] the individual’s perception that they are, and will continue to be, a criminal,” according to a University of California, Berkeley study.

In fact, this same study finds that when people convicted of felony crimes do not face permanent disenfranchisement, their chance of being arrested again decreases by almost 10 percent.

Whether it be part of a larger, much-needed criminal justice reform in the United States or part of its own effort, the importance of reforming felon disenfranchisement laws in the United States cannot be overstated.

Mobilizing people to support this effort certainly has its difficulties, as it’s often hard for people to advocate for the rights of marginalized communities that they don’t often encounter.

Since felony convictions have as much, if not more, to do with economical and ethnic background than the actual crime committed, there exists an especially strong danger in allowing formerly incarcerated people to be further marginalized.

Some might be surprised to learn that even inside the “Claremont bubble,” there exists opportunities to engage with these communities and begin advocating for change. From 5C classes partially taught in local prisons to independent volunteer work, the opportunities are there, but it is up to us to involve ourselves.

As students committed to being engaged members of society, we have an obligation to recognize the areas where our country fails its citizens, and felon disenfranchisement is chief among them.

Christopher Murdy PO ’22 is an intended international relations major from Lido Beach, NY. He has yet to be convinced West Coast beaches are better.

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