Posted on July 2, 2008
[June 30, 2008, New York Times]
Among the world’s democracies, the United States is uniquely unforgiving in denying ex-offenders the right to vote. Nowhere is the problem worse than in Florida, where criminal justice experts estimate that as many as 950,000 felons are barred from the voting booth.
Last year, Gov. Charlie Crist pushed through new rules that made it easier for some ex-offenders to become full citizens and helped restore voting rights to more than 100,000 former prisoners. But this is well short of what’s needed ? a complete overhaul of a wildly illogical system.
In most states, inmates win back their voting rights as soon as they are released from prison or when they complete parole or probation. One big reason that does not happen in Florida is that state law requires felons to first make restitution to their victims. And until their voting rights are restored, former prisoners are barred from scores of state-regulated occupations for which the restoration of voting rights is listed as a condition of employment.
Quite apart from the fact that it is undemocratic to bar people from the voting booth because they owe money, the system is transparently counterproductive since it prevents people from landing the jobs they will need to make restitution. Denying ex-offenders a chance to make an honest living is a sure way to drive them back to jail.
The system also requires extensive and unnecessary background checks before voting rights can be restored for some applicants, making it hard to reduce the backlog. Florida could clear up that backlog in a hurry, treat all ex-offenders fairly and enhance democracy by automatically restoring voting rights to inmates who have completed their sentences.