What to a felon is democracy? Why full enfranchisement is a reparations demand

While there are some U.S. residents that can say that they live in the “land of the free” and actually mean it, for many, it is just a hollow mantra that has no personal applicability or relevance. To be free is to be self-determining and autonomous, and to exercise freedom is to exercise right and prerogative. These elements of freedom are essential to both the goal and actuality of democracy.

America’s maintenance of the world’s largest carceral system runs counter to the national ideal of “liberty and justice for all,” wherein liberty and justice are paradoxical in the context of how “criminal justice” is practiced. Mass incarceration is fueled by America’s overreliance on the criminal legal system as a means to address social problems. While there has been some sentencing reform in recent times, the draconian crime policies that fuel this system are still alive and are used as a tool to dilute American democracy, essentially distilling mass amounts of Black, Brown, and oppressed people out of the political mix.

A criminal conviction in America is essentially a marker of legal discrimination with regards to all areas of life that would allow one to exercise freedom. This stripping of rights includes, but is not limited to the right to work, the right to access safe and affordable housing, the right to access education, and the right to vote. Michelle Alexander has coined this legal discrimination as the “New Jim Crow” because a Black person today is just as likely to face the same discriminations as a Black person in the Jim Crow era. Given the conniving political narratives and policy changes that contributed to this disenfranchisement, The call for full restoration of voting rights for all currently and formerly incarcerated people as a reparations demand is overdue.

“Law and Order” = the criminalization of a movement

The public narrative around crime has evolved throughout history, largely vacillating between themes of punishment and rehabilitation. From 1930 through the 1960s, the incarceration rate hovered steadily around 100 per 100,000 adults in the population.[1] Thus, there was no real evidence to support that crime was an urgent issue that the public was concerned about. Why, then, would “law and order” be at the center of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964? Crime began to creep into political rhetoric as the Civil Rights Movement began to increase in intensity. As Black people had no real place in the polity, they resorted to and demonstrated collective defiance through protests and civil disobedience tactics, which was intentionally conflated with crime by politicians and laid the foundation for “law and order” rhetoric. Politicians like Goldwater capitalized on the white fear of the social movement for civil rights and racial justice that was brewing, and set the tone for the conservative constructions of crime as a problem into the public discourse.[2]

Lyndon B. Johnson is arguably where the 20th century rise of the carceral state began. In 1965, he signed two paradoxical yet monumental pieces of legislation into law that had warring implications for democracy and citizenship. On one hand, he succumbed to the pressure of groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) organizing and signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting. On the other hand, in the same year, he also signed the Law Enforcement Administration Act (LEAA), which created the bureaucracy and provided the funding for the war he promised to wage on crime. Essentially, the same moment that Black people in America were perceptually invited into the polity and gained a bit more freedom through the franchise, the American government was preparing to undermine and criminalize the very gains they promised by expanding the justice system.

Beyond the Voting Rights Act and LEAA, the real hallmark of Johnson’s presidency was the Great Society welfare programs, which was presumed by some to address issues of both poverty and crime. However, the conservative argument grounded poverty and crime in individual choice and saw welfare programs as a reward for laziness, which would, in turn, engender more crime. Goldwater summed up the logic by saying, “If it is entirely proper for the government to take away from some to give to others, then won’t some be led to believe that they can rightfully take from anyone who has more than they? No wonder law and order has broken down, mob violence has engulfed great American cities, and our wives feel unsafe in the streets.”[3]

“Welfare Reform” = the criminalization of poverty

Tough on crime rhetoric persisted through the Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years with the incarceration rate to match. Between 1970 and 2010, more people were incarcerated in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world,[4] and the War on Drugs was chiefly responsible. While there are many more men than women in prison in terms of sheer numbers, the War on Drugs locked women up at a much higher rate. Women are also much more likely to apply for and be granted welfare benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which become vitally important as they transition back to their community, as these benefits can help meet their basic survival needs during the period in which they are searching for scarce jobs or housing. However, welfare reform under the Clinton administration with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 made access to the social safety net virtually impossible for those swept up in the War on Drugs by denying federal benefits to people convicted of felony drug offenses. Black women were disproportionately affected by this lifetime disqualification of SNAP or TANF benefits for which they would be otherwise eligible.[5]

All of the “tough on crime” and “law and order” rhetoric leading up to the actual enactment and implementation of welfare reform was all about framing. Political actors at all levels of government had their say in connecting crime to whatever issue of the time to socially construct a frame through which they could filter facts and control the narrative. The Republican senator who sponsored the drug ban amendment, for example, argued “if we are serious about our drug laws, we ought to not give people welfare benefits who are violating the nation’s drug laws.” This framing of the issue comes after the public has been indoctrinated with notions of criminals deserving to be punished.

In this issue framing, welfare reform fit within the conservative welfare state narrative, which ascribes to the belief that the most prosperity results when people are left to their own resources to survive.[6] In this case, women who bear a criminal record and also have a family to feed should be able to figure things on her own if she tries hard enough and completes enough job applications, but she is in no way deserving of the government’s help because she was involved in some way with drugs. This narrative puts the onus of survival and welfare on the individual with no consideration of social, psychological, legal, or other barriers. The story that this conservative narrative fails to tell, though, is whether or not the drug ban provision of PRWORA actually results in the furtherance or maintenance of the welfare state.

As formerly incarcerated individuals comprise one of the nation’s most socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, we must ask ourselves, “what is the purpose of a welfare state when it does not serve those who actually need it?” and “why did reform put more families into poverty instead of lifting more out?” The fact that these questions even need to be posed suggests little-to-no social trust between the government and the people.

Trust, equality, and reparations

One cannot possibly trust a system from which he or she is excluded and has no say in who represents them. A 2005 study found that there is a positive relationship between social trust and social equality. That is, countries that practice equality have high levels of social trust, and vice versa. America has struggled for and against social equality in many different ways, but because efforts to close the inequality gap both in terms of economic justice and sheer human capital have not materialized, social trust also still remains low. America falls in a catch-22 situation where social trust will not increase without initiative to reduce social inequality, but the policy support to reduce social inequality would not pass because of a lack of trust. Coming back to the welfare state and felon disenfranchisement, formerly incarcerated individuals have been harmed by the system and therefore do not trust it because they system does not want to hear their voice, problems, or solutions. When harm is done, reparations are in order. Thus, all states need to repeal their felon disenfranchisement laws, as well as lifetime bans for SNAP and TANF benefits for people with felony drug convictions.

No resident of this country who is subjected to and criminalized by its laws should be denied the right to vote. Yet and still, convicted felons are denied this right, amongst a host of other things everyday. The omission of their votes is only one level of how incarceration dilutes democracy. On another level, the way that the Census calculates resident population counts prisoners as residents of a given county, even if they could not themselves vote. In turn, a dense population of prisoners translates to greater political power for those who put them behind bars.[7] In this case political power is gained through law manipulation instead of people, which is what powers democracy. To play on the words of Frederick Douglas, what to a felon, then, is democracy?

[1] Mackenzie (2001)

[2] Beckett and Sasson (2004)

[3] Beckett and Sasson (2004)

[4] Thompson (2013)

[5] Mauer and McCalmont (2013)

[6] Lipsky (2013)

[7] Thompson (2013)