Life sentence without a vote unfair to ex-felons

This Just In...

January 23, 2002|By DAN RODRICKS

A LONG TIME ago, someone - I believe it was Mr. Salt in eighth-grade civics - informed me that a convicted felon is never allowed to vote in an election. Commit a murder or armed robbery, or get caught holding some dope, and you can forget about ever again stepping behind the drapes.

There was no explanation given for such a lifetime ban, just a general acceptance of it - bad guys can't vote - and in all the years since then, I've heard few Americans complain about this denial of a fundamental right.

There's little sympathy for the rights of criminals in this country - and not much for former criminals, either.

So it was surprising to learn recently that what Mr. Salt told us in eighth grade no longer holds true for most of the nation. Turns out that state after state has moved to repeal voting bans or tinker with their laws and restore the right to convicted felons who have paid their debts to society. According to a federal report, 15 states have eliminated the lifetime voting ban since the 1960s, and today most states restore voting rights upon the completion of sentence, parole or probation.

It turns out that "liberal" Maryland is in a group of 13 states that maintain some sort of permanent ban on voting by ex-convicts.

Here, if you have two felony convictions on your record, you can never again vote. (Unless you get a pardon from the governor.) It's two-strikes-you"re-out in Arizona, as well.

Eight states permanently ban felons from voting after one conviction. Washington limits the ban to convictions before 1984, and Tennessee to those before 1986. Delaware allows felons to vote five years after they"ve completed their sentences.

In all other states, once a felon has done his time - and no longer is on parole or probation - he or she can join the voter rolls.

So the laws about felon voting have been liberalized in many states, even in death-penalty-mad Texas, since Mr. Salt's class. The laws came to be recognized as obstacles to the voting booth, vestiges of a time when one part of the society connived to keep another part out of the democratic process.

But, as I happen to live in a state that still prefers to permanently ban certain criminals from ever voting, I think the issue prompts a few questions: Why do we still insist on this? Should we? Can we support it on moral grounds?

My instinct tells me that, on first consideration, most people in this predominantly Democratic state would want to maintain the ban and not change the law, as some senators and delegates in Annapolis will suggest again in the 2002 session of the General Assembly.

Let's say you're a law-abiding, registered voter who, like the vast majority of Marylanders, has never committed an "infamous crime." Let's say a pollster calls you at home and pops the question: 'Should men and women convicted of two felonies be allowed to vote in the state of Maryland?'

Your immediate response might be, "No." Or perhaps, "No way." Maybe even, "No --- way!'

There's something about this that sounds right and just: A denial of rights befitting a two-time loser. If you want to be a member of this free and democratic society, then you have to play by the rules. Break the rules - shatter the "social contract." so to speak - and you can't play our game. Commit a serious crime or two, and you've lost the right to ever take part in the democracy again.

But step back a bit, and you can see a great hole in the argument - the idea of permanence in the penalty.

If someone has committed a crime and done the time, why should we ask anything more? If, after incarceration and parole, felons move back into society, live in a civil way and engage in the mainstream of life, why shouldn't they be allowed to re-establish themselves as full citizens? Even if they don't "mainstream." but stay out of trouble, shouldn't they get some say in who the next mayor or governor is?

The Sentencing Project, a Washington advocacy group that closely examines trends in American justice, believes that close to 4 million Americans have permanently lost their voting rights as a result of fel ony convictions. In Maryland, it says, the number is about 135,000. That seems like a tragic number of citizens who have to live in permanent exile from the democratic process.

There's a movement to repeal the two-strikes-you're-out law, and at the front is Marvin L. 'Doc' Cheatham, a longtime voting-rights activist and president of the city elections board. "I love this country, and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else." he says, "but I know this is not right."

The issue was around for years, Cheatham says. "But it just didn't rattle me." It was during a voter-registration drive supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that he realized how many Baltimoreans - particularly those between 25 and 40 years old, the majority with drug convictions - could not sign up because of the Maryland law.

People get older and a lot of them eventually clean up and smarten up. They stop committing crimes. They stop going to jail. We want them to become law-abiding, productive citizens. We ought to let them vote.

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