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The Elective Franchise and Prisoners

In all but three states in this country, people in prison are disenfranchised from the elective process. That translates into over two million people in prison without the ability to hold their government accountable for how they are treated (or mistreated, as is the case sometimes).

It is often suggested that when people break the law they forfeit the right to vote. Oftentimes people take that position without much thought. Although the details differ in the ways we have disenfranchised millions of prisoners (and this does not include the millions on parole), states generally take a common path.

Oftentimes state constitutions exclude from the elective franchise people who have been convicted of an “infamous crime,” and state legislatures define what an infamous crime is. In the past it has included cattle-rustling, horse theft, and murder (all hangable offenses), among others. In the last thirty years, the definition of “infamous crime” has grown to include the offenses of virtually everyone in prison and of most of those on parole (depending on what state they live in).

With the draconian cuts in state budgets, states are beginning to re-think their “tough on crime” tactics that are costing taxpayers billions of dollars. Most Departments of Corrections (sic) are mandated by their legislatures to “manage and control” their populations, not rehabilitate them. Most state-sponsored rehabilitation programs went out with the 1970’s.

I believe that when people are more invested in their community, they are less likely to harm that community. People who vote are more invested in their community. Therefore, giving prisoners the right to vote—a chance to invest in society or their community—could reduce recidivism. Additionally, helping prisoners develop socially responsible behavior like voting could also play a role in reducing recidivism.


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