Prison sucks, but so does the aftermath. In the United States, we impose some serious penalties on convicted felons even after their sentences are over. A number of civil sanctions relegates felons to a second-class-citizen-status: It varies by jurisdiction, but felons often cannot run for political office, serve on a jury, or own firearms; and are often barred from receiving government aid.
A conviction also presents a number of collateral problems. Felons often struggle to get loans or quality insurance, get into a good school, and struggle to secure a good job after serving their sentence. In the dissent to Parker v. Ellis in 1960, Chief Justice Warren expressed why release from prison does not end the punishment that a person faces.
“Conviction of a felony imposes a status upon a person which not only makes him vulnerable to future sanctions through new civil disability statutes, but which also seriously affects his reputation and economic opportunities.... There is, after all, such a thing as rehabilitation and reintegration into the life of a community.” The disenfranchisement and collateral consequences to felons has only increased since that time.
However, from all of the troubles a convicted person faces, one lost right stands out. Most states revoke a felon’s right to vote. Some do so indefinitely, some for all felony offenders, regardless of rehabilitation. Roughly 6.1 million formerly incarcerated people pay taxes, often working in our communities. All of these people are affected by legislative changes and agency decisions. Yet many of these people have no democratic voice. Thankfully, this is changing.
Florida was one of four states that never allowed felons to regain the right to vote. In this most recent 2018 midterm election, Florida’s population voted yes to Amendment 4 of Florida’s Constitution. Amendment 4 provides that felons automatically regain the right to vote upon completion of their sentences and parole, excepting violent crimes and sex offenders. This leaves Florida among good company of the majority of states that will restore the right to vote after serving one’s sentence. Only three states remain where a criminal conviction can forever bar you from voting, while several forever ban voting for a number of specified crimes in addition to sex offenses and violent crimes.
There are plenty of things to be worried in the criminal justice system. From the stripping of civil rights in deportation proceedings to increasing privatization of prisons. Things aren’t were we need them to be. However, this presents a step in the right direction. In order to have a rehabilitative system of justice, we must allow convicted persons to regain their rights and rejoin society. The punitive nature of incarceration and the collateral consequences frustrate the very purpose of a justice system. Even if the implications aren’t as big as some people would hope politically speaking, anything bringing the country towards rehabilitative justice is a good thing. If we want to see our justice system bring people back into society as productive and collaborative members of a community, they ought to have a right to in help determine that community’s fate.