There’s an Elephant in the Voting Booth.
By: SAPR Media Consultant Yunkyo Kim
In the midst of this controversial election cycle, America’s felon population remains a silent elephant. In our country today, 6.1 million individuals cannot vote due to voter disenfranchisement, but not much is being done to address the issue.
Except for Maine and Vermont, all states prohibit incarcerated individuals from voting. Thirty states automatically restore voting rights only after full sentences are completed. Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming restore felon’s voting rights only with court action. These regulations make voting possible only to some extent. However, lack of legal awareness and stigma can prevent even eligible individuals from voting. Individuals with felony convictions can easily spend years wanting to vote, unaware that their voting rights have been restored. In some restrictive states, there’s an option to submit applications to regain voting rights, but the national underfunding of parole boards leave piles of unread applications. Unfortunately, this oppressive pattern has been embedded in the backdrop of American politics and society.
Voter disenfranchisement goes all the way back to the Pilgrims. People who had committed certain crimes (the prosecution of which, targeted the poor) or didn’t own property could not contribute in the electoral process, limiting the voting pool to a handful of white, male landholders. A century later, during the Reconstruction Era, the southern states enacted disenfranchisement laws to effectively suppress the newly freed African American population. Even today in 2016, we ban individuals from the voting booth on the basis of their status as a felon or incarcerated person in a criminal justice system that is inherently racist, classist, and xenophobic to begin with. Thus, from poor colonists to freed African Americans to the current prison population, voter disenfranchisement has been a front for discrimination on a national level.
For a country that boasts its celebration of freedoms, we are also the world leaders in putting people away. In fact, Americans make up 5% of the world’s population, but are 25% of the world’s incarcerated people. With our current system more concerned with retribution than rehabilitation, incarcerated individuals are oftentimes subject to indifferent and even harmful policies with little representation to push for positive change. It is estimated that 63% of individuals within our criminal justice system meet the criteria to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder, and yet only 11% receive treatment within our criminal justice system. What’s more, in addition to the added psychological and emotional strain of an incarceration, many individuals living with a mental illness go without the support and services necessary for their success as restored citizens. Once released, incarcerated peoples often receive insufficient community support upon release and struggle to make ends meet as they face the continued discrimination of collateral sanctions, often ending up back in jail. The government maintains these efforts at the taxpayers’ expense, spending more than 80 billion dollars per year on incarceration. Our system spends an average of over $31,000 per inmate per year, and yet, the real price of incarceration appears to be the effects of its ineffective and oftentimes unjust policies, on individuals, families, and communities. It is engineered to fail all Americans. We all know it, but it has already become the norm.
We, as Americans, have tremendous pride in our value of equality, fairness, justice, and democracy. Nonetheless, the stigma of incarceration, and our system’s further marginalization of those most affected by it, can make it easy to sometimes look away or justify situations that violate these values. In recent years, however, we are just starting to realize that the underlying issues have expansive effects in our nation as a whole. We need to start a national conversation and we need Millennials to lead our movement.
Millennials are our near future.They are also the direct recipients of the damages we have incurred within our prison system. Fortunately, they are beginning to understand the importance and the necessity of reform. This election season, two leaders in the push for millennial reform, the Student Alliance for Prison Reform and Strong Returns, have come together with a Millennial Reform Agenda to highlight the importance of prison reform. The Agenda encompasses all phases of the criminal justice system - from ending the over-criminalization that fuels mass incarceration to taking steps that ensure successful re-entry. The agenda provides important, accessible information on the challenges facing our justice system today, and while this tool alone acts as an invaluable resource for education, with your action today, it could change lives.
With elections coming up in just a few days, and we need to pull out every possible support. We need to get Millennials to vote for candidates whose goals align with our agenda. We need politicians, judges, prosecutors, activists, organizers, think-tanks, journalists, academics~and voters like you. We need you to vote for supportive candidates who will push for prison reform when they step into office. We cannot wait four more years to get another chance for change.
On the national, state, and local level, our upcoming governmental administration needs to prioritize prison reform, and this starts in November. They can begin by giving the felon population a voice.
For the moment, there is one way for eligible voters to help: vote for the candidate who supports voting rights and prison reform.
Visit http://www.millennialprisonreform.org for more information.