Friday, February 18, 2005

Rewarding Criminals

Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) is pushing for legislation that would allow ex-felons to vote. The measure is one element in a larger Election Reform Bill. Currently an estimated 4.7 million Americans – about 2.6 percent of the population – cannot vote because of their criminal records, but the proposed legislation restores voting rights for felons who have repaid their debt to society.

There isn’t a great deal of information about this particular piece of the proposed legislation, but it appears the right to vote would be restored after every convicted felon has served his or her sentence, without regard for the offense for which they were convicted.

Some examples of common felonies are: armed robbery, arson, assault, battery, rape, murder, manslaughter, attempted murder/homicide, kidnapping, embezzlement, extortion, activity for profit involving child abuse/neglect/exploitation, adoption schemes, prostitution (or related crimes), adulterating drugs, poisoning, bribery, burglary, criminal sexual conduct, cruelty toward or torture of any person, filing false claims, fraud, mayhem, negligent homicide, larceny, obtaining property by false pretense, and receiving or concealing stolen property.

Our society once took it seriously when its people broke felony laws, and rightly so. Many of these crimes involve physical harm to innocent citizens, and sometimes death. And so additional penalties were added to jail time, fines, and the occasional execution as punishment for breaking society’s rules. Society says to its citizens, “We have rules that protect each of us and our society as a whole. We expect each of you to follow them. If you do not follow them, you will be punished, and part of that punishment is the loss of certain rights and privileges accorded to law-abiding citizens.” Loosely translated it says if you don’t play by the rules, you lose the privilege of enjoying all of the wonderful things our country makes available to you.

Yes, it is true that the debt to society has been paid once a convicted felon has served his or her sentence. And yes, it is also true that some criminals become rehabilitated while serving their sentence. But rehabilitation is not guaranteed, and the recidivism rate is very high, meaning that most convicted felons are not rehabilitated. This bill would restore the right to vote to people who have a high likelihood of committing other crimes. Does this make any sense at all?

The bill also makes it a federal crime to commit certain election-related crimes, such as deceptive practices like sending flyers into minority neighborhoods telling voters the wrong voting date, and makes these practices a felony punishable by up to a year of imprisonment. Leaving aside for the time being that this feature seems targeted to one segment of the political spectrum while ignoring the sins of the other segment, people who tried to manipulate the election system would lose their right to vote, but only until they had paid their debt to society. Then they would have their right to vote restored, rehabilitated or not, allowing them to fully partake of the right and privilege that they once tried to misuse.

These days, one may rightly wonder if society still takes felony crimes seriously. Rather than acting to protect ourselves from opportunistic or violent rule-breakers, we now seem more intent on finding excuses for them, and discovering ways to avoid punishing bad behavior.


Buffalo said...

On this one I must disagree. Once a person serves their time, including parole, their full rights should be restored. To do otherwise is simply not right. If they are going to re-offend it will most often happen before they are off parole.

While I can see a punishment for interfering with an election, I don't think it should be a federal law. We continue to give more and more power to the feds. I don't believe that is in our best interests.

James Shott said...

I kind of thought you might disagree, Buffalo, and I have to admit to a little uncertainty, myself. At least in certain cases. The more minor the crime, the more I might be inclined to restore the right(s) depending upon some sort of effort to ascertain if the felon is indeed rehabilitated.

However, for the worst felons -- those that commit murder, rape, and such viscious and violent crimes -- they have shown that they have no regard for social and legal boundaries, and I don't think I would restore the rights for those people. Of course, a good many of them would be in jail for life, and it wouldn't be an issue.

And I agree with you that a state election law would be the way to go on that one. The feds do, indeed, have too much power.

I'd like to recommend two books to you:
1. Constitutional Chaos: When the Government Breaks It's Own Laws, Andrew Napolitano
2. Men in Black, Mark Levin

I've just started the latter, which addresses some of the improprieties of the USSC through the years. Napolitano's book is an excellent text on how the Constitution should be interpreted, and how, sometimes with the best of intentions, the government has trampled on our rights. John Ashcroft is not treated kindly in this book.

JL Pagano said...

United We Stand, Divided We Fall.

The more Americans re-define what constitutes a True American, the more divided America becomes.

So from this debate I take it Hilary Clinton followers, felons and even the "feds", all fall outside the bracket of True Americans.

Don't mind me, I'm just a Bleeding Heart Liberal. ;-)

James Shott said...

Thanks for visiting and for the comment.

I'd restate your premise, jl: The more divided the American people become, the more differences there are in the perception of what constitutes a True American.

However, being a Bleeding Heart Liberal doesn't allow you to misstate the argument. ;-)

Neither I nor Buffalo suggested that anyone is not a True American. You have set up a straw man, and knocked him down. And you have strayed far beyond the limited boundaries of this discussion to do so.

I wish you had stated just why you believe murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals should have their right to vote restored. Or why you think Hillary would want to take this step.

Then we'd have something tangible to debate.



JL Pagano said...

Thank you for your reply.

It is not my intention to knock down, it is my intention to understand. I apologize if I mis-stated the argument; I believed it to be about who was entitled to vote in American elections.

The proposed legislation to which you allude seems to be about voting for people who govern America, or indeed individual states therein.

Therefore, if you have suggestions as to who should and should not vote, then IMHO, you are debating who has the right to choose who governs them.

"Society says to its citizens, “We have rules that protect each of us and our society as a whole...etc, etc"

When exactly did "society" say that? It's quite an elaborate para-phrase, and seems to be the foundation for your argument.

Are you implying that everyone who has NOT been convicted of a crime is a "Law-Abiding Citizen"? Can we debate this?

"I wish you had stated just why you believe murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals should have their right to vote restored."

We are talking about such people WHO HAVE SERVED THEIR TIME, so if their crime was that dire, I would be more concerned about why they had been released at all before wondering if they we entitled to vote!

If the courts determine a length of time for which a person needs to be punished, they should be punished for that period only.

You seem to think being "law-abiding" is somewhat similar to virginity in that once it is compromised, it can never be restored. I respectfully disagree.

I believe in democracy. I believe the people who govern are meant to represent the people they govern. All of them.

I believe Americans should vote for who governs America, so this is why I took your discussion to be one of who could consider themselves a "True American".

You ask me why I think Hillary would take this step - maybe because she feels most of these ex-felons will vote Democrat? If so, then is this the real reason that you oppose the motion?


OK I'm off my soap box now; I have bookmarked your excellent thought-provoking blog. Feel free to look at my own blogs, you will find them on my profile, but as Buffalo has said himself, a lot of the writing is in the Irish vernacular so may be difficult to follow. I was born in the USA and thus have interests both sides of the Atlantic.

James Shott said...

The argument I was making is much more narrow: If “society” has determined that one penalty for committing serious crimes is that you lose your right to vote (and in seven states it has), should we change that, and if so, why?

You are right that the entire bill is directed at overall election reform, and restoring the right to vote to felons who have served their time is merely a small piece.

Everyone who is a citizen of the U.S. and is at least 18 years old can/should vote, except for convicted felons in seven states, who have been expressly prohibited from voting because of their crime against society.

And, yes, through the lawmaking process, “society” did indeed say that if you break felony laws in any of those seven states, you have made yourself ineligible for certain elements of citizenship.

As for law-abiding citizens, you can toy with definitions if you like, but you can’t argue successfully that a convicted felon is one. And that is the point.

“I believe Americans should vote for who governs America, so this is why I took your discussion to be one of who could consider themselves a "True American." Of course Americans should vote for who governs America. But Americans also have the right to determine if some of their countrymen have behaved in such a way as to justify denying them certain rights and privileges.

”You ask me why I think Hillary would take this step - maybe because she feels most of these ex-felons will vote Democrat? If so, then is this the real reason that you oppose the motion?” Actually, those in favor of restoring voting rights to felons claim that the felon prohibition disproportionately affects black Americans, who do vote substantially Democrat. That blacks are disproportionately represented among felons is an empty argument, as felons are lawbreakers convicted of a crime by either a court process or by confession. It is therefore irrelevant how many are black and how many are not black.

I have no hidden agenda here. As I stated, society has the right, indeed the duty, to establish its rules. If society deems felons to be undeserving of the right to vote, I won’t argue that point.

I will take a look at your blogs. And thanks for your interest in mine.