ACLU Justice Tour
This weekend I attended an event called ‘The Justice tour’ sponsored by the ACLU of Wisconsin. There were a number of informative panels, including one which focused on mass incarceration. The statistics regarding incarceration, and how Wisconsin evidently has the highest percentage of incarcerated black men in the nation, are staggering.
I was impressed by how convincingly the panelists were able to make detailed and practical suggestions for how the criminal justice system should be altered. For example, they had compelling and detailed examples of why crimeless revocation should be altered or stopped. All of the talks ended with the same general call to action- speak to elected officials, educate them, and hold them accountable. And make criminal justice reform a voting issue. Particularly for district attorneys and also judges, since judges are elected in Wisconsin.
The trouble is, even though I’m knowledgeable about these issues, I’m sure I wouldn’t be as strong a voice speaking to politicians as these panelists. And the reality is that people decide who to vote for based on a wide variety of issues that are important to them, and I don’t see how criminal justice reform is poised to dramatically increase its traction.
First Hand Knowledge and Advocacy
I think the key thing that makes some of these panelists such effective advocates is that for many of them their knowledge of the system is not based only on their current work and advocacy. It’s based on something which I personally (and thankfully) lack: It also comes from their own personal past experience serving time in prison.
When it comes to advocating for changes to the criminal justice system, the people whose lives are most directly affected by it have the strongest, most authentic, and most knowledgeable voices. These would be people who are currently incarcerated or who have been incarcerated in the past.
Unfortunately, though, by and large these people have tremendous difficulty getting the attention of elected officials. A main reason is because they don’t have the right to vote.
Since They Can’t Vote, They’re Not Heard
In Wisconsin, someone who has been convicted of a felony cannot vote if they are still serving any portion of their sentence. That means not just if they are in jail, but even if they are out on extended supervision, probation, or parole. In Wisconsin, that comes to about 65,000 people or 1.47% of the population. In some states the numbers are even higher. Tops is Florida, in which felon voting rights are not automatically restored even upon completion of an entire sentence. In Florida a staggering approximately 10% of the population is for this reason not allowed to vote!
As non-voters, it’s inevitable that coalitions of individuals who have done time in jail will struggle to get elected officials’ attention. Why would a candidate campaigned for office choose to spend time with people who can’t vote, likely won’t be able to vote for a long time in the future, and by and large are probably not in the position to make major campaign contributions to boot.
But imagine if voting rights were restored immediately upon leaving prison, or for that matter if voting rights were never even lost when incarcerated. Here’s an organized block with a great deal of knowledge and stake in criminal justice reform. Local politicians especially, whose races may be decided by just thousands or even hundreds of votes, will take notice. Just as politicians currently hold listening sessions at retirement homes to hear about issues important to seniors and campuses to hear about issues important to students, listening sessions at prisons and halfway houses will get added to that list. This way politicians will become educated about problems with the criminal justice system, be forced to take positions, and be held accountable by these constituents.
Restoring felons’ rights to vote would not bring immediate legal change, and of course it’s no guarantee that any particular change will ever come about. But restoring these rights is a basic prerequisite for those most knowledgeable of and affected by the criminal justice system to be able to advocate for needed change.
This is not a constitutional issue or something which requires jumping through unusual legal hoops- the disenfranchisement of felons is merely a matter of state law and can be ended by the state legislature. In fact, Maine and Vermont currently do allow even incarcerated people to cast absentee ballots from prison.
Personally, I don’t believe for me to lobby directly for specific criminal justice reform measures would be effective. I’m out of my league- there are far stronger, more authentic, and more compelling voices to speak on that. I think advocating for restoring felons’ right to vote is where I can make the most difference. I hope that’s a cause the ACLU takes up too.