Saturday, November 05, 2005

Michael: Restoration Project in Arizona

In America, the self-proclaimed Johnny Appleseed of Democracy, 4.7 million Americans have been shorn of their most basic civil rights, including the right to vote. The most basic and cherished right of an American citizen is denied to these citizens because they have been convicted of a felony one or more times in their life. In 48 states (with the exception of Maine and Vermont) and the District of Columbia prisoners cannot vote. In 35 states felons on probation or parole are disenfranchised. And in 13 states, including Arizona, a felony conviction can result in a lifetime loss of civil rights extending long after the completion of a sentence.

This fundamental obstacle to participation in democratic life is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in disproportionate numbers of minority citizens being unable to vote. It is estimated that this pervasive disenfranchisement of American citizens has affected the outcome of at least 7 Senate races and at least 1 Presidential race (2000), in just the last 20 years.

As a result of various changes in state laws, as well as extensive grassroots efforts, an increasing number of Americans with felony convictions are regaining their voting rights. Such an effort is underway here in Arizona under the Restoration Project, which had its first public forum in Tucson on the 4th of November. The Project seek both legal remedies to the problem, to educate the relevant population on how to restore their rights, and to educate the broader public about the need for reform.

Public opinion clearly shows strong support for reform - 80% of the public supports restoration of voting rights for ex-felons who have completed their sentences, and more than 60% support the right of probationers and parolees to vote. So why is reform so difficult if public support is so strong? Ignorance.

Most people simply aren’t aware of felon disenfranchisement and its impact, and if they are, they don’t realize the hurdles former felons face in restoring their rights. Arizona doesn’t collect statistical information on civil rights restoration, but it is known that over 58,000 Arizonans have been stripped of their right to vote. Based on the rates of restoration in jurisdictions with similar laws for judicial restoration procedures, it is safe to assume that only a negligible percentage of former felons achieve restoration, even if they are eligible.

The solution is to automatically restore lost civil rights upon the completion of any felony sentence. Arizona State Representative for District 28, Ted Downing, introduced legislation that would automatically restore all civil rights (except for the right to carry weapons, which would still have to be judicially determined) last term. It was passed out of the Public Institutions committee by a wide margin, but never got a hearing in the other two committee to which it was assigned. Deserving of extra-credit for supporting a Democratic-sponsored bill are Republican Members Jennifer Burns, Pete Hershberger, Vice-Chairman Trish Groe and Chairman Marian McClure.

One might wonder why this bill didn’t sail through committees and pass overwhelmingly, given the broad public support such laws receive. Ignorance.

There are many superficial and reflexive responses to restoration that might cause some people to resist restoration. I will try to address some of them.

”Felons have broken the social contract and cannot be trusted to use their vote to promote the social welfare. They may form a voting block voting against the public order and enforcement of the penal laws.”

This is an untested and theoretical assertion with no evidence to support it. In America we demand that when the government acts to deny its citizens fundamental rights that it have a reasonable policy goal in mind with narrowly tailored policies to reach that goal. We demand that there be a logical and empirically proven connection between the ends desired and the means used, and that the policy be designed to minimize collateral impacts on the rights of citizens. These are principles of our Constitutional law, not just reasonable and intelligent governance.

There are good reasons to believe that most, if not all, of those 4.7 million Americans have useful and important views and life experience that will enrich our democracy. They have seen intimately how our justice system works, or fails to do so. We have the industrial world’s highest incarceration rate: maybe part of that is disregarding the franchise of those who have been there. America suffers from a creeping militarism in its foriegn policy that threatens the stability of the world and the future of life on earth: maybe the nearly 600,000 veterans nation-wide who have been disenfranchised by these unjust laws would have useful views on our military policies. They have seen economic hardship and know the sting of discrimination. We have the industrial world’s greatest income disparities, rates of child and senior poverty, and worst healthcare for the poor: maybe we ignore the poor because so many of them are legally disenfranchised. Our democracy is impoverished, not improved, by their silence.

”These people have committed crimes; they simply deserve whatever they get for the rest of their lives.”

There is not a single judge who would argue that a felon should be punished beyond the term of his sentence and satisfaction of whatever fines and restitution is apportioned to him. How is it justice to punish a person beyond their lawfully imposed sentence?

The most important argument against the sort of perpetual retribution which disenfranchisement represents is more spiritual in nature: Forgiveness. Reverend John Fife (himself a disenfranchised felon for his acts of civil disobedience in the Sanctuary movement) spoke to this point at the forum. Fife pointed out that community, be it a family, a friendship, or a nation, cannot function without forgiveness.

Consider the example of Abraham and his sons. He intended to murder of his sons and the children made war on each other, yet they stood together at Abraham’s funeral. We all do terrible things to one another, but with repentance, atonement, and forgiveness we can continue to live together. The promise of forgiveness in Christ is the central covenant of the Christian faith. If you would have a more Christian nation, more forgiveness would be a good place to start.

There are other very good reasons to favor restoration. Our nation was founded under the slogan, “No taxation without representation!” A central republican (note the small r) value is that the moral authority for taking taxes from the populace is that the same populace has a franchise with which to have a say in how it is spent. Many felons live for years in our communities, paying taxes, raising kids, working to make a living and contribution, yet they are denied representation while bearing taxation.

We want ex-offenders to reintegrate into society upon the completion of their sentence and become full and productive members of society. Yet we deny them the most basic rights of citizens. A franchise and the other civil rights, such as holding public office, for many are marks and vital tools of that citizenship. It is hypocritical to expect these men and women to take on the full responsibilities of citizenship after they’ve paid their debt to society and yet withhold from them all the rights of citizenship.

To move this issue forward a broad coalition of interests must be mobilized and our legislators must be aware of the broad support for issue in their constituencies. If you are a member of a public interest or service organization, ask them to join the Restoration Project. Contact your legislators, especially if they are on the Judiciary, Public Institutions or Rules committees and let them know how you feel about this issue. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, it should be about doing what is right and just and best for our democracy.


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