The suspension of rights during incarceration has been a widely debated topic in the political world. The mere fact that political figures are being asked to comment on this issue shows that this question has a substantial standing in American society. This debate was sparked by Sen. Bernie Sanders who argued that “The right to vote is inalienable and a universal principle that applies to all American citizens, 18 years and older. Period.” If the right to vote can be taken away upon conviction, it is not a right, it is a privilege.
As of 2019, only two states—Maine and Vermont—in the US allow all people to vote while they are in prison. Other states enforce limitations on enfranchisement based on whether they are in prison, on parole, on probation, or have completed their sentence. They are not typically distinguished by the brutality of their crime.
69% of Americans believe that prisoners should not retain their voting rights during incarceration and their opinion is well-justified considering that prisoners are not exactly model citizens and can do serious harm within a lapse of judgment but the US incarcerates 21% of the world’s prisoners and not allowing the prison population to vote results in a misrepresentation of this population in the government body. That’s 2.3 million prisoners misrepresented.
Now, the aforementioned statement does not even take into consideration all the racial disparities in incarceration. According to statistics from Pew Research and World Population review, white prisoners make up 0.2% of America’s white population but black prisoners make up 0.8% of America’s black population. The disenfranchisement of prisoners affects POC (people of color) more than it does white people. The fact that a greater percentage of the POC population is in prison means that there is less representation of the same in the American governing body.
Prisoners are ripped of their rights to the Universal Adult Franchise based on the idea that convicts undergo a sort of temporary “civic death” which leaves them unable to elect representatives in the government which results in some serious repercussions within the incarcerated population. The repercussion is the high recidivism rates in the US.
“Recidivism rate refers to the relative number of prisoners who, after being released, return to prison or jail because they have committed another crime.” In 2016, The Bureau of Justice found that inmates released from state prions have a five-year recidivism rate of 76.6% whereas, in Canada, a government that has legalized prisoner enfranchisement is at a recidivism rate of 35%.
Sweden, another governing body that offers enfranchisement to prisoners is also looking at a recidivism rate of 35%. Recidivism rates are believed to be an accurate measure of how successful a correctional system is and considering the rates are lower in countries that offer enfranchisement to prisoners, we can assume with certainty that felon voting rights work complementarily with correctional systems.
Prison is supposed to be rehabilitators; a chance at the personal transformation; and allowing them this basic democratic right will only encourage them to be more involved in society. This also forces politicians and the government to take the voices of inmates seriously which they can use to bring attention to the rehabilitation process behind the bars.
Not only does disenfranchisement affect the rehabilitation process, but it also affects a country’s economy. Currently, US incarceration rates are really high (about five times the Canadian rate), is known to spend about $81 billion annually on mass incarceration, that’s about 8% of the total income tax collected gone towards making sure that there are people behind bars.
It is not economically smart anymore to be inattentive to the rehabilitation process of a prisoner because it is costing the government more money every year to just incarcerate people.
A part of refocusing on the rehabilitation system would be to “encourage them to engage with social issues through the ballot box rather than continue to reinforce their exclusion from society which often causes them to commit a crime in the first place.’
The governing bodies who have addressed and legalized enfranchisement for prisoners have found a way to unify the population through civic duty meanwhile also addressing the racial disparities in the voting population. These governments have seen declines in recidivism and crime rates since the introduction of these laws. Besides, citizenship does not expire upon misbehavior.