Inmate gets reality check on issue of voting rights

April 05, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

It was a letter sent in sincerity, so I'll sincerely answer it.

John Sachs is Inmate 327-073, according to a letter he sent on March 30. The return address was listed as 550 E. Madison St. in Baltimore, the location of the Maryland Reception and Diagnostic Classification Center, an inmate's first stop in the Maryland prison system. Sachs' letter is about voting rights for felons.

"Hello sir," Sachs began his letter. "I am writing to you in regards to your article dated 3-18-06 `Do We Really Want To See Felons Voting From Prison.' I've written something that I hope you'll print to give the inmates' view on this subject. Are we inmates not human to you? Are you not for rehabilitation of inmates?

"Eventually, most of us will be released back into society. Can you tell me why you feel like we shouldn't be allowed to vote? I am a huge fan of your articles, but I disagree with your perspective of inmates. We serve our sentences so that we might be able to start a new life once we are released. I look forward to hearing from you."

Well, Mr. Sachs, here's my answer.

It's a misrepresentation of my position to write that I feel felons shouldn't be allowed to vote. It's my feeling that some, perhaps many, felons shouldn't be allowed to vote and that some, perhaps many, should.

Before 2002, Maryland law provided a process for restoring felon voting rights. One thing I must repeat - since advocates for the immediate restoration of voting rights for all felons seem to forget this - is that before 2002 Maryland disenfranchised two-time felons. If you had only committed one felony, all you had to do once your sentence was completed was re-register to vote. But committing two felonies indicates that the felon might not just be some schmo who happened to make a mistake, but is someone on the road to being a career criminal and a recidivist. The way to distinguish the two-time felon who intends to go straight from the one who is, in fact, a career criminal and recidivist is the process Maryland had before 2002: having the felon apply to the governor for a pardon.

With that process, Maryland's governors could look at the felon's background, see what kind of crime he or she had committed, determine if the felon were gainfully and legally employed and for how long and perhaps a number of other criteria. Based on those, the governor then might or might not grant the pardon.

No advocate of immediate, blanket restoration of voting rights for all felons has, Mr. Sachs, presented one cogent argument against this process, except to say that it was difficult and lengthy. But that was as it should have been.

If you've committed two felonies in this state, why shouldn't the process by which your voting rights are restored be lengthy and difficult? It surely shouldn't be the same as the process for one-time felons, and it should be nothing like the process for those citizens who've committed no felonies.

Two-time felons in Maryland have, by definition, done time twice in our state's penitentiaries. They should be used to what's lengthy and difficult, because that's just what a stretch in one of Maryland's joints is. So the "it's lengthy and difficult" argument has no merit. Nor does your one about taxes.

"No one should ever lose his or her right to vote," you wrote. "As long as you have to pay taxes on the food you buy, the clothes you wear, the gas you buy and the income you earn, as well as pay many other taxes, then you should be afforded the right to vote."

Aside from the fact that you seem to imply it's OK to disenfranchise the unemployed, those statements ignore several realities. The first is you're forgetting that taxpayers are paying for housing you and other felons in all of our state penitentiaries.

We're paying to feed you, and we're paying your medical bills. We paid the salaries of the cops who arrested you, the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted you, the jurors who found you guilty and the judge who sentenced you. If you had a public defender, we paid for that, too. We also pay for the correctional officers who keep order in our penitentiaries.

Felons who argue for a right to vote because they "pay taxes" should start by paying back the cost of their arrest, trial and incarceration. The cheaper alternative would have been getting that pardon from the governor, but our state legislators ended that option in one poltroonish stroke back in 2002.

The second reality you ignore is the unarguable existence of recidivism. You assume all felons will leave prison and become gainfully employed, law-abiding, taxpaying citizens. That description applies to some of you, not all.

Many felons will return, immediately, to lives of crime. Those who were serving sentences for drug dealing will probably return to drug dealing. Any taxes they pay on the food they buy, the clothes they wear and the gas they buy will come from money they made illegally. The crime and misery their drug dealing costs society far exceeds any taxes they might pay.

And the final reality? Legislation proposed for this legislative session would restore voting rights to felons the very second they leave prison, whether they're taxpaying citizens, unemployed or recidivists.

The entire argument for immediate restoration of voting rights for all felons, without exception, rests on the shaky premise that there is zero recidivism in our society. People who believe that need to be booked, fingerprinted and mug shot by the Reality Check Police.

Sooner rather than later.

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