America has traditionally had an unusually negative fixation on criminals. We saw this phenomenon spike with Richard Nixon’s declaration of the “War on Drugs” and in the 1990s, when news broadcasts convinced us that gangs were literally going break down all of our front doors. This is not to say that criminals are not deserving of punishment and wariness, just that we as a nation must realize that not all criminals are death row inmates. They are people, people who have made mistakes that shouldn’t disqualify them from a life void of respect and equality.
One of the biggest flaws with modern America’s approach to the democratic model is in its handling of convicts and voting. Almost every state in the union has laws preventing felons from voting. Some states even keep ex-felons from voting. Only Maine and Vermont stand by their citizens’ inherent right to representation. When one considers the high percentage of incarcerated African Americans and Latinos, the repealing of voting rights can become an issue of disenfranchising ethnic minorities, which has the potential of perpetuating a vicious and repressive cycle. Revoking that right is a severe abuse of fundamental human rights and should only be considered for severe circumstances, such as treason.
Our legal system is increasingly concerned with punishing rather than rehabilitating. As a nation, we must strive for a system that is less punitive and more civil and democratic. The campaign on drugs doesn’t help in this process. Rather, it turns millions of ordinary Americans into criminals. Criminals are human beings, despite the acts they commit. Oftentimes it is easier for them to reconnect with that humanity, which can be severely inhibited in prison, if they are treated with the respect due to any person. By allowing criminals the right to vote, we let them to feel reconnected to society, which can only hasten the rehabilitative process.
There is also something wrong with the criminal statistics associated with our justice system. America locks up more people than any other nation on earth, with a prison population rate of 756 out of 100,000 according to the World Prison Population List. Either this means that we have a law-enforcement structure that is vastly superior to even authoritarian states, like China which also has a much larger population, or we are approaching justice is a skewed manner. The latter seems much more likely.
It is easier to lock people up rather than help them. We like to make ourselves feel safe by simply pooling all of the ‘undesirables’ of society in dehumanizing prison systems. It is easier to be vengeful than loving of one’s neighbor. Again, this is not a slight to those who have suffered at the hands of criminals. Everything that can be reasonably done to prevent and punish crimes should be done. It must be understood, though, that we are a community as well as a nation and we should be reticent to give up on another citizen, let alone permanently soil his reputation in the ‘Scarlet Letter’ fashion with which we approach justice today.
For further reading on this issue, I recommend checking out the links below. These respectively include an article on criminals voting, the World Prison Population List and an attachment from the CPIC on the ‘prison industrial complex’.