Finishing prison sentence should bring back voting rights

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that “participation in community life is not only one of the greatest aspirations of the citizen, called to exercise freely and responsibly his civic role with and for others, but is also one of the pillars of all democratic orders and one of the major guarantees of the permanence of democratic life.” (CSDC 190.)

Many would say that voting is one of the most important ways individuals participate in the civic life of society.

Yet in Minnesota, there are tens of thousands of people living in the community, working to earn a wage to support their families, and paying taxes, who are unable to vote. These are Minnesotans who have been convicted of felonies and thereby lost the right to vote until they have completed their entire sentence; or even those who only underwent any term of community supervision without spending any time in prison or served only a short jail sentence.

For three main reasons, the Minnesota Catholic Conference supports legislation introduced this session (HF 491/SF 107) that restores voting rights to disenfranchised Minnesotans who are no longer incarcerated. This reform: 1) gives Minnesotans with criminal convictions a stake in the community and in decisions that affect their lives; 2) helps foster political participation of minority communities disproportionately affected by the current system; and 3) decreases the likelihood that offenders will be arrested again.

Beyond punishment

Catholics often hear the word “solidarity.” Solidarity is defined as “social friendship.” (CSDC 103.) In their document, “Restoration, Rehabilitation, and Responsibility” (2000), the U.S. Catholic bishops declared that in matters of criminal justice, “[s]olidarity calls us to insist on responsibility and seek alternatives that do not simply punish, but rehabilitate, heal, and restore.”

The bishops encouraged lawmakers to redirect the vast amount of public resources away from building more prisons and toward better and more effective programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration.

Though Minnesota has been a leader in developing alternatives to incarceration, such as the use of parole and probation programs, nevertheless, many barriers still exist that prevent Minnesotans with a felony conviction from fully participating in the life of the community.

One such barrier is in the area of voting. In 2011, of the 63,000 Minnesotans who were unable to vote due to a past criminal conviction, only about 16,000 were still serving prison or jail time.

Restoring stakeholders

Minnesota should pass legislation to allow people who have served their time and are living in their community to vote. By moving to this model, Minnesota will join 13 states that disenfranchise only those persons who are incarcerated for a felony conviction.

This reform will promote successful reintegration into the community, as voting can be a powerful, concrete, and symbolic way to contribute to one’s community and to feel invested and empowered to play a positive role. Fuller integration of people into their community and involvement in civic life logically results in stronger ties and feelings of empowerment that will help to lessen feelings of disconnection and frustration that can contribute to future crime.

Research has shown that persons with criminal convictions in their past are less likely to be arrested again in states that restore voting rights after release from incarcer­ation than in states where they face permanent disenfranchisement.

Additionally, restoring voting rights not only empowers those currently working to re-join society, but it also has the potential to empower future generations. Research indicates that children are more likely to vote as adults if they are raised by parents who engage in the voting process.

Finally, many law enforcement and corrections professionals agree that restoring voting rights after incarceration makes sense. A policy that permits voting for all individuals who have served their time in jail or prison reduces confusion among voters and election officials about who can vote, thereby easing election administration and reducing government costs.

Restoring the right to vote for those living in the community will positively engage more people in the democratic process, make the law clear and save resources, and ultimately make our communities safer and more just.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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