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July 29, 2008 -- The Guardian (UK)

Column: The End Of Tough-On-Crime Politics

Millions of Felons in the US Have Been Stripped of Their Voting Rights. It's Time to Give Them Back

By Sasha Abramsky

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

For over 30 years, one of the leitmotifs of US politics has involved the sorry spectacle of politicians from both sides of the spectrum pushing ever-tougher measures simply so they could score cheap points during election seasons.

But tough-on-crime was always a smoke-and-mirrors game. Introducing mandatory minimum sentences, removing perks such as education from prisons and scaling back parole systems might have made the lives of individual criminals more unpleasant, and certainly sent a message to irate taxpayers and voters that their money wasn't being spent on coddling thugs, but these policies never really served to tackle the causes of crime or to help convert prisoners into law-abiding citizens ( witness the extremely high number of parolees who cycle back into prison within a couple years of release ).

One of the tragedies of this trend was a wholesale disenfranchisement process. The reason, as I've explained in earlier Guardian articles, is that many states still adhere to 19th-century laws that remove felons from the political process and make it extraordinarily difficult for them to ever regain their right to vote. Until the twinned wars on crime and drugs quadrupled America's incarceration rate in the last three decades of the 20th-century, more than doubling since the mid-1980s alone, the number of people impacted by such laws was relatively small. Once low-end drug offenders, in particular, began being processed wholesale through the criminal justice system, that equation shifted. Instead of the disenfranchised being a small population made up mainly of relatively high-end offenders, it ballooned into a huge population predominantly made up of low-end offenders.

In that inversion metastasised a massive challenge to America's democratic ideals. By 2004, Florida was disenfranchising close to a million citizens of voting age. Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and several others states ( mainly, though not exclusively in the South ) also had removed the vote from hundreds of thousands of men and women. All told, by 2004, over five million US citizens had lost their right to vote.

African-Americans, caught up in war on drug sweeps in massive numbers, were hugely overrepresented in the pool of America's voteless, being denied the right to vote at a rate seven times that of the overall population. In the permanent disenfranchisement states, anywhere from one in five to one in three black males had lost their right to vote. States that a generation earlier had been forced to open up their franchises by the combined moral force of the Civil Rights movement and political force of reformers in DC now saw the number of eligible African-American voters shrivel again.

In a country in the throes of tough-on-crime politics, reformers had precious little room to push this issue. Re-enfranchise a one-time drug prisoner, a burglar, a con artist? You must be insane. Even though mass criminal justice involvement for an increasing array of low-end crimes meant that this was clearly a civil rights issue -- the burden of which fell on poor and minority citizens -- and one with enormous political implications, it was framed exclusively as a criminal justice theme.

Now, however, tough-on-crime politics seems largely to have run its course. For the first time in a generation, neither major candidate is making a big hue and cry about his tough-on-crime credentials. That's not because Barack Obama and John McCain are weak on crime, but because they both seem to have recognised there are better ways to tackle crime than simply play-acting at being Hanging Judge-type characters for the news headlines.

While the prison population continues to grow, it is doing so largely because of the ongoing implementation of bad laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s rather than because of a rash of new punitive legislation. The political capital to be gained from talking tough on low-end criminals simply isn't there anymore in a country fearful of economic collapse and nervous about America's role on the global stage.

And in this transformation is an opportunity. Over the past four years, reformers have successfully pushed Florida to re-enfranchise over 100,000 of its citizens. Iowa's governor signed an executive order restoring the right to vote to all felons who had completed their sentences in his state. Virginia's governor recently pledged to speed up the processing of re-enfranchisement applications from non-violent felons. New Mexico, Delaware, Washington and several other states modified their laws. And two states Connecticut and Rhode Island passed laws allowing their parolees and people on probation to cast ballots in elections.

At a federal level, senators Hillary Clinton and Russ Feingold, along with several prominent members of the House of Representatives, have pushed legislation that would establish a right to vote in federal elections for all felons upon completion of their sentence. Perhaps most importantly, traditionally liberal groups such as the ACLU and the NAACP are no longer the only ones calling for change. The American Bar Association now supports re-enfranchisement, as does the national organisation representing the country's parole officers. Many district attorneys have also come out in support, arguing that social policy should be designed to encourage ex-offenders to think that they have stakes in society rather than to believe they are permanently excluded from it.

These reforms have been won because the language surrounding the issue has changed. People are once again talking more about voting rights and civil rights and the importance of civic participation and less about crime and punishment and unremitting toughness. How long this window for change will remain open is unclear. Were crime to rise again, were a new drug epidemic to start dominating the media's attention, that window could all-too-rapidly be slammed shut. But, while it remains ajar there's a real opportunity to pass more state and federal reforms that, taken together, would serve to bring millions of Americans back into the country's political process.

The opportunity should be seized, not out of any warm-and-fuzzy, wishy-washy impulse, but out of societal self-interest. Re-integrating ex-offenders into society, into its political and its economic structures, is one of the smartest anti-crime strategies going.

Also visit our "Prisoner ReEntry" section.

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