Restoring dignity

In light of the craptastic voter turnout in the general election earlier this month, I’d think that the infusion of 140,000 voters who likely will not take for granted the privilege would be a good thing.

Today, though, following Gov. Steve Beshear’s executive order restoring voting rights to certain classifications of former felons, I’ve seen commentary suggesting that this is a defiance of the “will of the people” and putting forth the idea that felons who have been released from prison should wait five years before having their voting rights reinstated.

The “will of the people” argument is so asinine I’m not going to explore it, except to say that it might be possible that the will of the people has been wrong before (Jim Crow, the Red Scare, National Socialism).

I find the idea of a five-year waiting period interesting. What exactly is it that proponents of this idea hope to accomplish? What’s supposed to happen in those five years? Training the former felon how to use the new voting machines? A refresher on high school civics? That’s about four months there. What are they supposed to do for the remaining 56 months?

It is doubtful either of those things will happen. They would cost money. The only other reason I can think of that anyone would impose a waiting period on regaining such a fundamental human right is as a punitive measure.

And punishment for what? For successfully completing a prison sentence? For repaying a debt to society?

Never having been to prison, I can only speculate what it’s like coming out into “the world” again. I have talked with some former felons in my previous professional life, and I know there are, not surprisingly, obstacles to re-entering society. It can be difficult with a felony record to find a job or secure housing. The social stigma of having served time follows the former felon almost everywhere. I’m not going to argue that it’s wrong. You can’t legislate peoples’ thoughts and perceptions. Society should choose to nurture former felons, but if people fear or are distrustful of former felons, there isn’t a law that will make people trust a former felon. That’s a justifiable position, by the way. I’ll give a former felon a chance, but I’ll also defend someone’s right not to. You went to jail for a reason. Life’s going to be a little bit hard when you come out.

Even though society is not obligated to welcome the former felon with open arms, they ought not feel further disenfranchised by being treated like second class citizens. After all, they have served their time. They are square with the house. By imposing a waiting period of five years (or three, or ten, because it seems so completely arbitrary), we may as well just send the former felon back to prison.

My senior year in college, a roommate stole my credit cards and went on a shopping spree around Morehead. He was arrested, charged and pleaded guilty to the crime, and afterward served time in prison. I’m not sorry that he went to jail, and I hope it gave him time to reflect on what he had done. If he had a hard time regaining his footing when he got out, I’m not sorry. But, I’m glad he can vote now. It doesn’t hurt me at all.

Critics have suggested this executive order is a good thing for Democrats. It is what it is. Liberals have been championing this issue for a long time, and have delivered on it. If that puts Democrats in the good graces of former felons who can now vote, then all I can say is that Republicans could have done the same thing and been seen as the champion of civil rights for former felons, and maybe they could have welcomed those voters into their fold. They didn’t.

Why? That’s a good question. Was it to maintain the image of being tough on crime? Is the definition of being tough on crime is breaking someone even after they’ve served their time and paid their restitution? Was it to “protect us”? From what? Hordes of registered voters showing up at the polls?

To release a person from prison, call them reformed, tell them they’ve repaid their debt, and then to withhold a basic human right is setting a bad example. It’s beating someone when they’re down. It’s bullying.

It’s not the kind of society I want to live in. At least I don’t have to now, and neither do 140,000 former felons.

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