If a drug-addicted person with a short criminal record of petty street crimes is arrested and convicted for shoplifting and at the same time is also convicted of possessing a few grams of cocaine, that person will likely spend several years in prison followed by five or ten years on probation. Following release from prison, the ex-felon will be unable to vote in a majority of states until the probationary term expires, and then only after weaving through a difficult, often impossible, bureaucratic maze. In ten states, voting rights are never restored after a felony conviction; and if the conviction takes place in a federal court, a presidential pardon may be the only way to restore the vote, but this is an improbability if one is not well connected.
On the other hand, if a person who occupies a position of prestige and command in a large corporation commits transgressions that are on a grander scale than those of the average street criminal, such as releasing defective, life-threatening products into the marketplace or defiling the environment by dumping chemicals into a river, the chances of that person’s going to prison are virtually nil. Nothing will be done by any law enforcement agency to prohibit the corporate official-or the corporation-from participating in the electoral process. The official will remain free not only to vote but-along with his or her corporate employer-to lobby state and federal officials and to contribute large sums of money to candidates, political parties, and political action committees. No state or federal laws forbid such electioneering activities, no matter how criminal the corporation.
Of the many baseless premises and outright myths that infuse the criminal justice system, none is more senseless or pernicious than the notion that revoking the right to vote of a person who has completed a prison sentence after conviction for a felony ensures the “purity” of the electoral process. Although not as brutally final as capital punishment or as gratuitously cruel as the incarceration of a person for addiction to drugs, the obliteration of the franchise of a person who has completed “hard time” is every bit as illogical and pointless. If one of the objectives of incarceration is the rehabilitation of the convict so that he or she can rejoin society as a constructive, contributing individual, marginalizing the marginalized even more is, to say the least, counterproductive.
The uneven but pervasive disenfranchisement found in forty-eight states (Maine and Vermont are the exceptions) and in the federal system adds to political impotence and social degradation in poor-especially African-American-communities. Ten states disfranchise felons for life, thirty-five states prevent parolees from voting, and twenty-nine states forbid voting by persons on probation for a felony conviction. Relying on figures and laws collated by Jeff Manza, Christopher Uggen, and Marcus Britton of...
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