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March 25, 2007

Prisons, Democracy, and Political Opportunism

By Ankush

The always excellent Jason DeParle has a wide-ranging piece in The New York Review about prisons today.  DeParle writes, among other things, about how imprisonment increases and at the same time hides inequality, as well as about the astonishing increase in imprisonment rates in the US (now "five times the historic norm and seven times higher than most of Western Europe").  He also digs into the issue of felon disenfranchisement, which has rightly been drawing an increased amount of attention over the last few years:

"Disenfranchised felon" is a term that encompasses three groups. Some 27 percent are still behind bars. Others, 34 percent, are on probation or parole. And the largest share, 39 percent, are what the authors call "ex-felons," whose sentences have been served. Voters are least receptive to letting the first group vote and most receptive to the last. But state practice varies greatly. Maine and Vermont offer ballots to those still behind bars; thirteen states strip the franchise not only from current prisoners but also from probationers, parolees, and some or all ex-felons.

I tend to think that Maine and Vermont have got it right, but it's that last bit that never ceases to amaze me -- that, in four states today, if you're a convicted felon, you can lose the right to vote forever. You can no longer participate in American democracy -- one of the hallmarks of which, since this country's inception, has been the gradual expansion of the suffrage. Never mind that most depressing of facts, known all too well, I'm sure, to many of this blog's readers: "If felons were allowed to vote, the United States would have a different president." Florida is one of the states that bars ex-felons from voting, and one of the studies discussed in DeParle's review shows that, even using conservative assumptions, the state would've gone to Gore if its felon disenfranchisement regime wasn't among the most restrictive in the country.

DeParle notes that few people today actually argue in favor of felon disenfranchisement, but, not surprisingly, one of them is the hacktacular Republican minority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, who, in 2002, had this foolishness to offer:

States have a significant interest in reserving the vote for those who have abided by the social contract that forms the foundation of a representative democracy. We are talking about rapists, murderers, robbers, and even terrorists and spies. Do we want to see convicted terrorists who seek to destroy this country voting in elections? Do we want to see "jailhouse blocs" banding together to oust sheriffs and government officials who are tough on crime?

Well, it turns out those rapists, murderers, and robbers "account for about 8 percent of felonies, while drug crimes account for a third." DeParle, being too kind to the stupidity of McConnell's argument about "terrorists and spies," doesn't estimate how many of those people actually reside in US prisons. But how many "jailhouse blocs" do you suppose have ever existed? You're thinking to yourself, "That just sounds like nonsense.  A hundred?  Perhaps a dozen?  Can't be significant."  Turns out it's ... zero.

Lest you think McConnell may just be misinformed, consider this little factoid, uncovered by one of the books under review: Absent felon disenfranchisement laws, Mitch McConnell wouldn't have won his election to the Senate in 1984. Ditto for six other modern Republican senators. Now, you don't suppose there's a connection between McConnell's transparently silly arguments and his party's political interests, do you?

March 25, 2007 | Permalink


Your points are all well-taken. I think the major stumbling block to any kind of reform on this issue is that no politician wants to be seen as angling for the felon vote.

I mean, the reality is, should felons be permitted to vote, based on their social and racial demographics, they'd most likely tend to favor Democrats. This so easy to spin for Republicans, it's practically a gift. "Do you want to vote for the party favored by criminals? Or the one that's tough on crime?" Sigh...

Posted by: Lons | Mar 25, 2007 1:04:15 AM

Disenfranchisement is Karl Rove in his essence. But the real issue is the insane rush to lock 'em up. Financially disabilitating, socially disintegrating, and pushed by our horrible media circus beyond the edge of madness, the real fact is that you are going to pay. Yes, your kid's college tuition is going to go to pay for a prison guard's overtime. Love it or leave it, my bitches.

Posted by: Dick Durata | Mar 25, 2007 2:21:54 AM

Disenfranchisement is a real issue, but I am more troubled by the widespread acceptance of massive brutalization in the prison system. The common perception - accurate or not - is that an inmate, especially but not only a male inmate, is likely to be repeatedly raped unless they establish their ability to achieve a dominant social position through violence or somehow make an accomodation with a gang inside prison; these gangs are perceived to be brutal criminal enterprises, rather than merely mutual protection societies. This narrative could be complete nonsense for all I know (my only knowledge of prisons comes from the popular media), but I am very worried that most people, believing something of this sort to be true, seem to be okay with it. Prison rape is a frequent subject of contemporary humor, and I don't see why such jokes should be any more acceptable than the crudest sexism or racism.
Most people put in prison will return to society, and rightly so. I think society would benefit if inmates were helped, not harmed, by their time in confinement.

P.S. on a more topical note, don't forget that, in an electoral situation somewhat analagous to that of african-americans in the Jim Crow south, many inmates aren't merely disenfranchised, but are also used in the census to give extra representation to people with whom they often share few interests, thereby further reducing the clout of their home communities.

Posted by: Warren Terra | Mar 25, 2007 6:39:59 AM

Warren Terra: Excellent points, all. I know that public interest groups (The Brennan Center, in particular) have, in the past, tried to lobby for changing the census rules on counting inmates, but without any luck. Also, Ezra and Chris Hayes have written a number of good posts on the issue of prison rape.

Posted by: Ankush | Mar 25, 2007 7:51:03 AM

I must take issue with your sympathy for those who, as Senator McConnell has rightly pointed out, didn't seem to care about their civic duties in the first place.

Well, it turns out those rapists, murderers, and robbers "account for about 8 percent of felonies, while drug crimes account for a third."

And this matters how? As a society, we have classed these crimes together as felonies.

even using conservative assumptions, the state would've gone to Gore if its felon disenfranchisement regime wasn't among the most restrictive in the country.

And herein lies the real motivation. It's the same motivation that fuels the movement in California to allow illegals to vote. POWER.....at any cost. Can't win by the current rules?.....change the rules.

The good news is that our federalist system allows the people in those states to thumb their noses at young socialists, and allows the citizens to determine the voting rules. Don't like it? MOVE

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 25, 2007 9:23:02 AM

Fred: Do you know what socialism is?

Posted by: Ankush | Mar 25, 2007 9:55:36 AM

Ever come in the middle of a conversation and not know what's really going on? Well, that's what you do.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 25, 2007 10:03:04 AM

I know what you were doing. I read this blog and its comments.

Now that that's all cleared up, perhaps you can explain to me what it is that goes on here that constitutes socialism and what, if anything, socialism has to do with felon disenfranchisement. I bet you can't.

Posted by: Ankush | Mar 25, 2007 10:13:29 AM

McConnell is only trying to prevent other states from beoming hellholes of crime and violence like Maine and Vermont.

Seriously, I think allowing inmates to vote may be going too far. If we're depriving them of liberty, then depriving them of the vote as well doesn't seem too extreme. But when felons have served their sentences, our system has decided that they can return to participating in the community, and that participation needs to include the ability to vote like anyone else.

And let's not forget that the disenfranchisement in Florida in 2000 involved purging lists of people who had names like those of felons, not just purging felons. So even if you think it's okay to disenfranchise felons forever, surely it's not okay to disenfranchise random innocent people in the process.

Posted by: KCinDC | Mar 25, 2007 10:57:59 AM

"Don't like it? MOVE"

I must have missed this sentiment when I read the Constitution...

Posted by: jmack | Mar 25, 2007 11:22:40 AM

POWER.....at any cost.

Fred, did you read Ankush's original post? It appears that it's McConnell and the Republicans who have actually benefited by keeping people who have served their time from becoming normal citizens again. Odd how you (mis)read that.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 25, 2007 11:50:39 AM

what, if anything, socialism has to do with felon disenfranchisement...

Nothing, of course. It was a refernce to the poster....as pronoun of sorts. It kinda takes all of the fun out of it when you have to explain it, doesn't it?

Next time, I'll use more exact language with few sylables for you.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 25, 2007 11:54:29 AM

Fred: It's best not to insult people's intelligence in a post with obvious spelling errors.

Posted by: Ankush | Mar 25, 2007 12:40:33 PM

Someone already mentioned it, but it's true.

Why do Democrats want to let felons vote? Cuz both groups (felons and Democrats) share a value system and would vote for the same people. You morons claim that conservatives are more corrupt and crooked, yet felons overwelmingly favor Democrats.

Being convicted of a felony carries other costs besides jail and probation. A felon can never own a gun, they are excluded from certain jobs and in some states, they lose they right to vote. Actions have consequences.

Of course, personal accountability is not in the liberal vocabulary.

Posted by: Captain Toke | Mar 25, 2007 12:50:57 PM

By your logic you should be a Democrat, Toke. Forgotten where your user name comes from? Ever committed a felony, or paid others to do so? You obviously have. We all know you break the law with impunity, and brag about it. Spare us your felons, values and personal accountability schtick. If you deserve to vote, ex-felons who have actually done their time, unlike you, deserve it far more.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 25, 2007 3:23:23 PM

I guess unconvicted felons never have to say their sorry.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Mar 25, 2007 3:32:28 PM

I am not exactly sure what harm felon disenfranchisement is protecting us from. Felons don't vote as a bloc. And what kinds of laws would "being a felon" incline one to vote for? Is there a felonious way to vote for, say, medicare subsidies or the war in Iraq? Because I'm not seeing it.

This is the problem with punishment for punishment's sake, rather than to achieve a goal. It's understandable that someone in prison for embezzlement can't get an accountant's license again. But what social good does preventing him from voting provide? None...unless vengeance is your aim, not protecting society or achieving punishment that fits the crime. Other than some sort of involvement in voter fraud (at a stretch), I can't imagine any crime that the punishment of disenfranchisement fits.

And of course, there is the long-disregarded aim of rehabilitation. Disenfranchisement is just one more way of assuring that a felon who's served his or her time will feel no connection to the rest of society ever again; very few these days seem to think about what effect that has on recidivism rates. It's unfashionable these days to posit that any felon could ever actually go on to become a productive citizen again.

Posted by: emjaybee | Mar 25, 2007 4:06:11 PM

I don't really care about felon disenfranchisement. The rest of the New York Review of Books article is absolutely great, though. Very good and disturbing read.

Posted by: Korha | Mar 25, 2007 4:47:52 PM

Emjaybee, clearly the fear is that felons voting as a bloc would elect politicians who will legalize burglary and murder, the way they have in Maine and Vermont.

Posted by: KCinDC | Mar 25, 2007 5:27:34 PM

"Ever committed a felony, or paid others to do so? You obviously have."

Buying a bag(less than a few ounces) of weed is not a felony.

If I get caught committing a felony, I lose my right to vote. I know that going in and I am not going to bitch about it later. I have close relatives who lost their right to vote. If you can't do the time, don't do the crime. Most criminals could give a shit less about their right to vote.

It is about accepting responsibility for your actions. Same with abortion. Same with not suing fast food restaraunts if I get fat. Same with not suing tobacco companies if I get cancer. Actions have consequences.

I have done my share of time in jail. I never once blamed whitey, the man, the machine, BushCo, etc. because I got caught. I think that is one of the big differences between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives know your actions have consequences, good or bad. Liberals have a mental defect that lets them believe that their actions are not their fault and therefore they should not be accountable.

sanpete, don't be jealous just because I get to sit around and smoke fat doobies all day and you have to stay sober to have a chance of keeping up with me on intellectual level.

Posted by: Captain Toke | Mar 25, 2007 9:57:51 PM

Toke, you forgot the part about paying others to commit felonies. Your suppliers commit felonies all day long. You openly support their felonies and facilitate them. Really, I think you should turn yourself in, and your suppliers too, since you believe criminals should face the consequences of their actions. But instead you seem to think you and they should only be held accountable if you or they get caught. That must be conservative logic.

Liberals understand that felons who have served their time have been held accountable for their crimes, unlike you. These ex-felons actually deserve to vote more than you do. And, after someone has paid for their crime, it makes sense to reintegrate them into society. That's liberal logic.

It's hard not to be jealous of you, but I manage to contain myself.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 25, 2007 10:51:06 PM

"Toke, you forgot the part about paying others to commit felonies. Your suppliers commit felonies all day long."

I can assure you I pay no one to commit felonies. I pay no one for my vice. Yet I smoke the finest green just about every day. And that is the truth.

You assume too much.

"And, after someone has paid for their crime, it makes sense to reintegrate them into society. That's liberal logic."

Then, of course, you believe felons should have their gun priviledges reinstated, right?

Posted by: Captain Toke | Mar 25, 2007 11:08:49 PM

Toke if you grow your own you best hope that you haven't been sharing the wealth. Cultivation with intent to distribute and/or distribution is definitely a felony and don't think that if you've been giving it away that your safe. If fact, the cops don't even have to prove that you've given any of it away to bust you for the above.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Mar 25, 2007 11:20:30 PM

WBR, he doesn't grow it. He just gets it from someone who does. According to what he's said before.

Toke, you're still avoiding the fact that you are encouraging and even celebrating the commission of felonies, avoiding being held responsible for your acts while complaining about liberals supposedly not wanting criminals like you to be held accountable. You have it backwards. Ex-felons, who, unlike you, have been held accountable, deserve to vote more than you and your felon buddies do.

I don't mind felons losing their right to have firearms. That isn't punitive; it's a matter of assessing risk. Not allowing ex-felons to vote is punitive and isn't addressing a risk to society. Allowing felons who have been held accountable to vote will never be any more harmful than allowing you, who are less deserving, to vote.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 25, 2007 11:30:29 PM

Why am I less deserving? Cuz I'm smart enough not to get caught?

The only reason you want to let felons vote is cuz you share the same mentality as most of them and therefore vote the same way. If they voted Republican, I doubt you'd be such an advocate. Al Gore wanted to disenfranchise the military vote in 2000 cuz he knew how most of them would vote.

Jail is punitive. If part of commiting a felony means you can no longer vote, that's it. Don't do the crime then bitch cuz you have to go to jail, are put on probation, can no longer vote, etc.

I celebrate smoking weed (a misdemeanor) not dealing or giving it to babies, etc. I celebrate the fact that I can get so blistered that I can't see straight, yet I can still out think and out logic you.

Posted by: Captain Toke | Mar 26, 2007 12:03:15 AM

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