While reading of the exchange between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney on voting rights for felons last week, it occurred to me that in the 20-plus years since I started going into prisons as a volunteer, none of the men on the inside has told me what he misses about the free world is voting.
The men—I’ve only worked with men—tell me that they miss their mothers (although, poignantly, very few mention missing their fathers), they miss their wives, children, and jobs. Several have even mentioned missing Dr. Pepper. But none has mentioned to me that he misses the voting booth.
Over the same time period, I’ve heard numerous scholarly presentations and political discussions on the same topic. While I do not pretend that the men I associate with on the inside constitute a representative sample of the prison population, I have a suspicion that voting rights for felons is a bigger issue to folks on the outside than it is to the men on the inside.
I understand the reasons for opposing votes for felons. Almost all of the men on the inside have hurt people, either directly through violent offenses or indirectly through drug and alcohol offenses. In Lockean political theory, a person forfeits the privileges of civil society through violent aggression. Deprivation of the vote is one appropriate indicia of this forfeiture.
So I don’t believe it’s an illegitimate consequence for most offenders to face for their actions. But the absence of illegitimacy doesn’t answer the question: Is deprivation of the vote subsequent to release (and after any probation and parole) a useful additional penalty for society to impose on offenders?
Without minimizing or rationalizing the impact that crime has on victims and society at large—which is a tendency that is important to avoid both for the spiritual growth of the men as well as for the volunteer who receives Jesus in ministering to these men (Mt 25.36)—it seems to me that there are practical reasons that offenders who have completed their sentences should be welcomed back into civil society by being re-granted the suffrage.
The recidivism rate for released offenders remains very high. Even for men actively involved in the church on the inside, the transition from prison to the free world is fraught with difficulty, and many do not succeed.
While there are certainly those men in prison who play the church game, it’s not true of all of the men. And in some ways, the transition to the free world for Christians seems to me even more difficult than for those who aren’t.
Men who have converted or returned to the faith on the inside and who “walk the talk” often find a warm, supportive community of faith inside prison walls. Many are respected—by the other offenders as well as by guards and staff—and many even hold positions of leadership and responsibility in their prison churches.
When released, even the strongest Christians typically face suspicion and fear from their families, from society at large, and from churches on the outside. These are not entirely unjustified reactions from people who knew the offender before prison but who have no closely participated in their transformation.
Nonetheless, at the precise moment these men need support to succeed in the free world, they lose the social and spiritual support they knew inside the walls, and they often find no alternative welcome on the outside (except perhaps from their old friends).
Without this support, and faced with the personal upheaval of release into a free world that can be significantly different than the one they understood before then went in, it’s not a surprise that the men find themselves tempted to revert to the only behavior they have experience with in the free world, even though it’s behavior that lead to their incarceration in the first place.
I don’t pretend that returning the vote to these men will change all of that. But I see no gain to us by piling on after their release. It’s a difficult enough transition without the continuing reminder that even after you’ve served your sentence, you’re not really welcomed back into civil society. And it’s in our interest—society’s interest—to help ex-offenders successfully transition back into the free world.
James R. Rogers is associate professor and department head in the Department of Political Science at Texas A&M University.
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