For most of us, it seems intuitively obvious that felony disfranchisement works against efforts to rehabilitate people exiting the prison system, and therefore increases the likelihood of recidivism. The goal for people who have been deemed fit to return to society is to reintegrate them. Holding them at arm’s length, telling them their voice is not valued, is counter-intuitive.
Christopher Uggen, of the University of Minnesota, was co-author of a study exploring the relationship of voting to subsequent crime and arrest: "We first encountered the possibility that civic reintegration may be connected to motivations for desistance in a series of in-depth interviews we conducted with convicted felons in Minnesota. Those we interviewed often spoke passionately about the stigma of a felony conviction and told us that losing the right to vote, in particular, was a powerful symbol of their status as 'outsiders.'"
All the former felons we interviewed for Democracy’s Ghosts expressed similar sentiments. Sam Bonner, of St. Petersburg, Florida told us: "It’s pretty devastating to think that…I want to reintegrate, I want to give back to the community, I want to be a good member of society, I want to actually contribute towards helping other people not take the same path I have, and yet, my efforts have been thwarted at every, every step of the way."
Correctional associations and officials, as well as law enforcement officials, agree that voting may aid rehabilitation. One group of law enforcement officials wrote in a federal court brief that "these laws may...undermine the rehabilitative aims of incarceration and parole...to the extent that disfranchisement distances the person from the community and serves no educational function...it weakens the impact of rehabilitative and correctional programs and programs upon the individual's reintegration as a law-abiding member of the correctional facility or community." And, Maine's Dept. of Corrections' Chief Advocate has said that voting allows inmates to make "personal choices in who will be representing them, their families, their communities...this serves to keep the individual involved in current affairs and connected to the community of his or her family during their sentence." The American Correctional Association also believes that once all terms of an individual's sentence have been completed, he or she should be able to vote. Statistics seem to bear out the notion that felony disfranchisement works against rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Uggen adds: “We do not know whether voting causes reduced crime, but we find a strong correlation. In our Minnesota data, voters in 1996 were about half as likely to be rearrested from 1997-2000 as non-voters.”
It’s a chicken and egg argument and so impossible to draw firm conclusions, but it certainly seems clear enough that preventing former felons from voting does not make communities safer.
George Bush, in his 2004 State of the Union address, said: “When the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” Giving people a second chance seems to most of us to make common sense.
Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, Voting and Subsequent Crime and Arrest: Evidence from a Community Sample, 36 Col. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 193 (2004-2005).
Muntaqim et al. v. Coombe et al., In Banc Brief of Amici Curiae Zachary W. Carter et al. In Support of Plaintiffs-Appellants and in Support of Reversal, 01-7260-cv/04-3886-pr (March 30, 2005) at 9-12.
Testimony of Wesley E. Andrenyak, Chief Advocate, Maine Department of Corrections in opposition to LD 200 (on file with ACLU).