Fifteen percent of the population of Georgia faces sanctions on their right to vote. While the right to vote constitutes an essential part of a functioning democracy, the promise of “liberty and justice” is, unfortunately, not “for all.” Human rights should not be subject to terms and conditions, yet certain felons in the state of Georgia are barred from exercising their right to vote. No one would want others to define them by their worst mistakes, but unfortunately, felony disenfranchisement does exactly that.
It is worth noting that these voting prohibitions come with some caveats. Felons who have completed their sentence, paid outstanding fines, or only been convicted once may still be eligible to vote. Click the following link for further information to see if you or a loved one still qualify to vote in the state of Georgia: https://www.gjp.org/voting/
Our nation’s present system of criminal justice focuses too much on punishment and not enough on restoration and rehabilitation. Why do we send criminals to prison? Prison should, in theory, rehabilitate offenders; every life is worthy of being saved. Instead, our present criminal justice system takes a punitive approach, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.
Prisons, in practice, make little attempt to restore and rehabilitate incarcerated individuals. Prisons, instead, cultivate a crucible of abuse, rape, and psychological trauma. Formerly incarcerated individuals often emerge from prison more hardened, callous, and jaded than when they entered, having experienced heightened rates of PTSD, near-universal exposure to trauma in prison, and high rates of sexual assault.
Essentially, prison only makes the problem worse.
People deserve to face consequences for their actions; however, we should let the punishment fit the crime. Almost nothing productive, healthy, or restorative can survive the prison environment.
Denying felons voting rights further ostracizes them from society; telling people they do not deserve one of the most fundamental American rights incentivizes individuals to distance themselves from the society that deems them “lesser,” and encourages antisocial behavior like committing crimes.
Compassion breeds compassion. Encouraging positive behaviors like voting for formerly incarcerated individuals can help reverse the damage to one’s self-esteem that prison inculcates and prevent recidivism.
Stripping the Rights of Black and Poor Communities
Felony disenfranchisement is not a matter divorced from issues of race and class in the United States. The prison industrial complex targets Black communities, systematically disenfranchising individuals and preventing them from escaping cycles of poverty.
Take, for example, the criminalization of drugs like marijuana. Despite the fact that 52% of people report having tried marijuana at least once, many states, including Georgia, continue to impose harsh sentences for marijuana possession. In Georgia, possessing more than an ounce of marijuana has a sentence of one to ten years and a fine of up to $5000.
Furthermore, studies have shown that Black people are “arrested for violating marijuana possession laws at nearly four times the rates of Whites, yet both ethnicities consume marijuana at roughly the same rates.” This is just one of the ways in which the over-policing of Black communities compared to White communities leads to racial disparities in punishment, sentencing, and rates of imprisonment.
Unfortunately, this disparity is not unique to marijuana or the criminalization of drugs. A complex, interwoven structure of present laws, historical inequities, and societal attitudes leads to the subjugation of Black communities that results in disenfranchisement. Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, redlining, gerrymandering and the school-to-prison pipeline unite the past and the present of institutional racism, reinforcing prejudiced attitudes in individuals and perpetuate further racial bias in our nation’s institutions.
Using the example of marijuana criminalization, the failings of our criminal justice system become apparent. The prison industrial complex leads to a cycle of crime that systematically disenfranchises communities of color, especially Black communities.
Investing in the Community
Decriminalizing marijuana is merely a single step in the broader goal of decarcerating our society. Currently, the Georgia Department of Corrections receives approximately a $1.2 billion dollar annual operating budget that funds methods of criminal justice and policing that simply do not work.
Instead, diverting a portion of those funds to social goods like healthcare, education and food security could stop crime at its very root. Studies have shown that Medicaid expansion and higher educational attainment lead to lower rates of crime., A lack of food security can lead to an increase in crime. To secure voting rights for all, the state of Georgia must invest in the people before anything else.