I was ineligible to participate in this month’s Washington state primary, which took place on March 10, because I am a convicted felon who is fresh out of the penitentiary.
But to be frank, I wasn’t concerned. I can care less about voting.
Some might find that disheartening. Sociologist Sarah Shannon of the University of Georgia, for example, recently criticized the disenfranchisement of felons who have reintegrated into the community, noting, “They’re not behind bars; so, what is it that’s stopping us from allowing those folks from fully participating in our democracy?”
Many agree with her. Over the last several decades, 19 states have restored voting rights to felons. (In Maine and Vermont, they never lost them.) That six of these states acted in 2019 makes it appear the momentum is on the side of those who believe felony disenfranchisement is an inequity.
It is an inequity. But to my mind, lobbying for the voting rights of convicted felons not only doesn’t address the more formidable inequities of our justice system; it’s a dangerous distraction.
To my mind, those fighting for the rights of the formerly incarcerated to participate in the democratic process are similar to abolitionists who believed the plight of the “negroes” would end once they were freed from slavery.
Freedom didn’t end the misery of African Americans, any more than the 19th Amendment brought women full equality.
Similarly, freedom from captivity hasn’t addressed the continuing inequities faced by myself and many like me. I remain in debt for $140,000 worth of restitution for my long-ago offenses that ballooned almost fivefold over the course of my 27 years in prison, due the accrual of 12.5 percent yearly interest.
My point is that the concerted effort to restore the voting rights of felons, while undoubtedly worthy, drains energy from the tougher job of tackling systemic problems in the criminal legal system—of which the fines and fees that burden returning inmates who can barely afford them are just one.
I don’t want to seem unappreciative. But I am skeptical of the rhetoric of those who use voting rights to burnish their reform credentials. Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky, for example, recently trumpeted his state’s decision to restore voting rights to 140,000 citizens “who have done wrong in the past but are doing right now.”
In a climate that is becoming less punitive, such rhetoric can too easily be a cloak for politicians to hide their seeming liberalism behind a retributive ethos.
I don’t think I’m being unfair to Gov. Beshear. Under his executive order, many of those “who have done wrong in the past but are doing right now” will still have the restoration of their civil rights subject to discretionary decision-making from officials in the governor’s office.
Specifically, that means anyone convicted of a violent offense, such as murder, manslaughter, reckless homicide, fetal homicide, second-degree assault, and a range of other proscribed offenses must apply for restoration of their civil rights through a process established by the state’s Department of Corrections.
They have a chance to get their voting rights back, sure. But there’s no guarantee, meaning that just their transformation alone into a successful member of civil society is still not enough to earn them a privilege granted every American as a birthright.
These are the types of things that make me shake my head when I see advocates celebrating the passage of such legislation.
Here’s another, perhaps more disturbing, reason. Some 140,000 Kentucky citizens have had their voting rights stripped because of their felonies. If you use Innocence Project estimates that at least 1 percent of all U..S prisoners are wrongly convicted, that suggests about 1,400 were probably innocent. A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study estimates the percentage of wrongful convictions is as high as 6 percent.
You do the math.
It’s even worse for sex offenders. In cases of sexual assault, researchers from the Urban Institute concluded that wrongful convictions in cases with a sexual assault component occurred at a rate of 11.6 percent.
That means one out of 10 wrongly convicted rapists that the Governor of Kentucky believed “have done wrong in the past but are doing right now” never did anything wrong in the first place.
Yet they lost their liberty.
They were labeled sex offenders and registered in a database.
Then they lost their voting rights.
Hopefully, those in the Governor’s office who review the petitions of those who are ineligible for the automatic restoration of their civil rights are aware of the research into the prevalence of wrongful convictions.
These figures are well known to the law professors, to ACLU lawyers, to professional activists.
So why aren’t they laser-focused on this inequity rather than celebrating voting-rights reforms that are only paper-thin?
Maybe because it’s less difficult to convince lawmakers to restore the voting rights of convicted felons than it is to change practices that lead the innocent to be found guilty.
Take prosecutorial misconduct, for example, which is identified as a key factor in wrongful convictions. Official reproach for such behavior does not act as a deterrence, because there is rarely any disciplinary action taken.
Bar associations rarely do anything. State supreme courts rarely censure or suspend the prosecutor for misconduct. And the wrongful convictions continue.
That’s why I’m not excited by the advocacy around restoring voting rights to felons. It’s newsworthy, but is it really where the energies of reformers should be placed?
Surely, keeping people from going to prison for crimes they didn’t commit is more important than getting people to vote after enduring a system where official misconduct is rarely punished, and public defenders are underpaid and often overburdened.
Once someone has made it to the voting booth after escaping a system such as this, the only thing that a poll worker can say is, “Welcome back, I hope you weren’t innocent.”
Jeremiah Bourgeois, who was released from a Washington state prison last fall, is the author of “The Extraordinary Ordinary Prisoner,” a collection of his essays for The Crime Report. The E-book can be downloaded here.