Let's give 'em back the vote

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

November 05, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Here's something to think about.

Today is Election Day in the city.

Today, residents are voting for their top three elected local officials -- mayor, council president and comptroller -- and for the 18 men and women who will represent them on the City Council.

Voters also will consider 11 bond questions and a proposed amendment to the City Charter that would change the structure of the council from six districts of three members each to 18 single-member districts.

And I think we all agree that these are important issues and I think we all lament the fact that fewer and fewer residents even bother to vote.

Well, consider this: There are thousands of people here -- maybe even tens of thousands -- who are prohibited from voting by state law because they have criminal records.

This prohibition might have made sense once upon a time. Maybe democracy once was so new and so precious that the mere thought of losing the right to vote was enough to deter many a would-be criminal.

But what are we trying to accomplish by this today?

"I'm not really sure I know," said Councilman Lawrence Bell, D-4th.

"All I know is there are an awfully lot of people out there who can't vote. When I ran my first campaign [four years ago] I kept running into people who would say, 'I'd like to vote for you, man, but I can't.'

"A lot of these people have turned their lives around and become hard-working, law-abiding citizens," Bell continued. "I'm not too sure we ought to be excluding these people. Especially in today's climate, when we're sending more and more people to prison than ever before."

State law prohibits anyone over 21 years old who has been convicted of an "infamous" crime from voting or registering to vote until after they have completed their sentence, elections officials say.

The Maryland attorney general has defined an "infamous crime" as being virtually any felony offense as well as certain non-felonies such as corruption or perjury. Anyone convicted of a second offense is removed from the voting rolls permanently unless granted a specific pardon by the governor.

At last night's council meeting, Bell introduced a resolution calling on the state legislature to amend the law so that people convicted of two or more non-violent offenses may be allowed to reregister if they have stayed out of trouble five years after completing their terms.

Don't laugh.

A council resolution, to be sure, generally has no practical effect on life in the city and even less impact on the policies of legislators in distant Annapolis.

But maybe we ought to take this idea seriously.

We live in a harsh, angry society that resorts to criminal sanctions far more readily than when the voting law was first conceived. This is despite the fact that the U.S. Justice Department estimates that the incidence of crime, as measured by the National Crime Survey, peaked way back in 1973 and has been declining ever since.

Let me throw some numbers at you: Crime has dropped by 24.5 percent nationwide since the early 1970s. Yet Maryland's prison population has ballooned from just 6,300 inmates in 1970 to more than 19,000 inmates today and it continues to grow at better than 100 new bodies a month.

In the past six years alone, state courts have sentenced well over 300,000 citizens to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, either for incarceration or for supervision by the parole and probation division. City residents were an estimated 55 percent of the department's total caseload.

Thus, by now, Baltimore probably has accumulated tens of thousands of residents who have "built" criminal records over time. Most of them are poor, unemployed, and black -- our prisons serve as warehouses for the disenfranchised.

Significantly, criminologists agree that enfranchised people have the best chance of going straight after they are released: Whether they have a job, the degree of family support they receive, the degree of their involvement in community affairs.

So here is the question: Can we afford to sentence vast pools of our population to internal exile even after they have paid their debts to society? Can we afford the luxury of disrespecting the disenfranchised further?

Uh, uh. I don't think we can.

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