November 21, 2014

Crimes against criminals: The right to vote

Criminally insensitive

Being a criminal is a crime in itself. It doesn’t matter if you have served your sentence; in the minds of the general population, you’ll always be an offender. The social stigma associated with criminals and their families, never truly leaves and in most cases they are shunned from society and left to fend for themselves. This apathy is understandable and even the felons can sometimes accept this treatment. What keeps them going is the support of their loved ones and the fact that at least the United States Government doesn’t discriminate people based on their past. Or do they? You only have to look at one of Florida’s draconian laws to burst the bubble- Ex-offenders have to go to bizarre lengths to get back their right to vote.

The Offender’s Dilemma

In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott passed the HB 1355 bill into law and brought Florida back into the controversial political limelight. The law not only makes the early voting and new voter registration process extremely complex and risky; but it also appears to be unconstitutional. This law has served as the starting point for countless other unpopular directives and laws, with the recent mass removal of felons from their voting lists being a very ugly political move.

Within the first quarter of 2012, more than 7000 voters have had their rights revoked due to recent convictions. With the presidential election race heating up, this will only serve to add fuel to the fire. Over 96% of the African American population in Florida voted for Obama in 2008 and most of them had registered through voter drives and church meetings that encouraged participation in order to elect the first black president. This was also a great way for felons to be accepted back in society and the perfect chance to reclaim their full citizenship rights. But the new legislations are a step backwards, as they are effectively meant to decrease the voter base by hitting out on all fronts. The voter drives have started to fizzle out as the registration process demands that the drive initiator first needs to get registered himself, and any new applications that they receive must be submitted within 48 hours or they will be considered invalid. Secondly, offenders convicted with non-violent felonies must wait for five years after release to even be considered for reinstatement of voting privileges and must have no new offences registered during that time frame. For violent felonies, the time limit is 7 years. This is just the beginning of the torment as the process for re-registration is extremely tough with miles of bureaucratic red tape that effectively kills any chance of rehabilitation.

All this has caused a dramatic decrease in clemency petitions for voting rights reinstatement and this year has seen a more than 50% drop in petitions and applications.

Verdict

It makes you wonder if the Florida administration is actually serious about rehabilitating felons, many of whom belong to the under developed black neighborhoods scattered throughout the state. If serving sentence isn’t enough to consider an individual as reformed, then serious doubts can be raised behind the whole point of convictions. Recently, dozens of African American ex-offenders turned up at a local church to demand reinstatement of their rights. Many had minor convictions like video piracy, while most where drug related. Some even had completed educational courses and had acquired degrees from reputed universities and yet here they were, pleading to be considered as normal US citizens.

This amounts to infringement of civil rights as it is unconstitutional to bar the freedom to vote, after citizens have served their sentence. The lawmakers and diplomats need to show some empathy with their fellow Americans, as it is hard to imagine that the land of liberty and equality can be so insensitive towards their own subjects. It has even been categorized as human rights violation by some and they are not that far off the mark. These felons have paid for their sins with precious years of their life which were vital to help their families and loved ones. This discrimination, even after settling their debts with society, is the biggest crime of them all. The political class needs to wake up and realize that like healthcare and education, voting is a fundamental right and these nonsense laws need to changed or abolished in the shortest timeframe possible.