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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Why Ex-Offenders — And Prisoners Too — Should Have Voting Rights

The Democratic primary race bumped into voting rights for incarcerated people again this week at a CNN Town Hall. Bernie’s on board, Mayor Pete’s a hard no, and both Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren said the idea warrants further “conversation” in the future.

Since it’s Second Chance Month, the annual awareness month dedicated to the stories and challenges of people who are leaving correctional custody, I think we should talk about it now. I want to discuss civic participation as a rehabilitation strategy and voting rights for prisoners as a way to keep people from reoffending.

When we talk about reentry, we think about the structural barriers like employment, housing, identification cards.

These are legitimate challenges for the returning citizen. As many as 27 percent of people released from prison are unemployed despite a cushy job market. Formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public. Even what seems like an easy hurdle to clear — securing an ID card to start the job and housing search — can be next to impossible.

Because social service agencies are so focused on helping people over those hurdles, we miss opportunities to talk about the fact that so much of reentry is emotional and psychological; the biggest barrier is self-concept. A criminal record ostracizes a person relentlessly.

Disenfranchisement is an extension of the criminal label and reinforces the idea that a person will continue to live outside the law. This might explain why people released from prison in states that permanently disenfranchise people — such as Iowa and Kentucky — are roughly 10 percent more likely to reoffend than those released in states that restore their rights, according to one study.

Our memories are short when it comes to voting rights. We’ve forgotten the success story out of Florida years ago. Back when Governor Charlie Crist was in office, from 2007 to 2011, 155,315 offenders had their rights restored. Less than one percent of the re-enfranchised citizens reoffended. It was an unprecedented reduction in recidivism — until the next governor took the rights away.

Voting is collective decision-making; when enfranchised, people see themselves as stakeholders in society, custodians of their communities. So, of course, they’re less likely to break the law.

If voting rights can curb recidivism, then states such as Vermont and Maine, which already allow prisoners to vote, should have rates much lower than other states that permanently disenfranchise people, but they don’t (Vermont houses many inmates out of state, which complicates things).

The reason why “Franchise for all” hasn’t produced the anti-crime effects it promises is that people are confused about whether they can vote. The patchwork of rights across states enables a faulty message that no person with a felony record can cast a ballot. It’s not true. Some can, and some can’t.

And that’s the problem. As many as 17 million people with felony records are eligible to vote but may not know it, so they end up disenfranchising themselves. A study published in Probation Journal found that 68 percent of respondents with criminal records in California didn’t know they were eligible to vote there, which explains why we haven’t seen the public safety payoff to voting rights that we would expect.

Because there isn’t one law on voting rights, an insufficient number of incarcerated people and ex-offenders get the memo that they’re included in society, even in places where they are. Consequently, they miss that boost to self-esteem that being part of the electorate can have on a person.

Misinformation is the enemy here. The way to combat it is to establish one rule on voting, namely that any United States citizen over age 18 can vote, regardless of their conviction history or status as an inmate. The remaining 48 states that don’t allow prisoners to vote should reverse course and agree with Vermont and Maine to not strip anyone of their voting rights. With less confusion will come more voting — and less crime.

We haven’t paid enough attention to the public safety benefits of voting rights for all people, including inmates. Anyone who believes in safe communities as well as second chances should support prisoners’ voting rights.

To find out more about Chandra Bozelko and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

Jussie Smollett’s Justice Restored No One

The act of dropping 16 felony charges against TV star Jussie Smollett didn’t need to be the injustice that it has become.

Even though they’re convinced he’s guilty, prosecutors in Chicago could have forgone prosecution in a different way — one that embraced the theory of restorative justice — and not passed up a perfect opportunity to model a new and more productive way of thinking about accountability.

Restorative justice’s roots lie in indigenous cultures and are older than our criminal legal system. Its practice became formalized in Canada 45 years ago in what’s called the “Kitchener experiment.” In lieu of going to jail, two teenagers who went on a vandalism spree met and made restitution arrangements with all 22 people whose property they damaged. Incarcerating the two wouldn’t have necessarily made everyone whole — financially or emotionally.

Restorative justice’s popularity is gaining now, most likely because it’s cheaper than locking people up, and it’s more satisfying to victims. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, 35 states have enacted legislation “encouraging the use of restorative justice” techniques.

These programs usually require victims and perpetrators to meet and discuss the harm that’s been done and ways to repair it. Studies in other countries have shown that people who’ve done harm are less likely to do it again once they learn the impact of their actions on other people — and when the lesson happens in a non-adversarial environment.

Restorative justice practices acknowledge two facts: one, that crime causes harm, and two, justice and accountability necessarily entail healing said harm. Healing requires that the system hear and acknowledge the people most affected by a crime and see that reparations are made.

Not embracing these principles is where prosecutors went wrong. The fact that Smollett wasn’t a victim doesn’t make this a victimless crime, yet that’s how they acted.

The victims in this case include the Chicago Police Department, whose time was wasted; Chicago taxpayers who footed a $130,000 bill for the investigation (far more than the $10,000 bond Smollett forfeited); and future victims of hate crimes whose trauma may be doubted. None of them were even consulted, much less given an opportunity to face Smollett and ask him why this happened.

Now those victims are dissatisfied, borderline rageful. And they want their justice the usual way: doling out convictions and terms of imprisonment.

One of the greatest modern American myths is that accountability must require punishment. On the contrary, accountability means accepting responsibility for one’s behavior and taking action to repair the harm. Every day, defendants in the same Cook County courthouse that released Smollett plead guilty and may never take responsibility for what they’ve done.

That accountability and punishment are inseparable is prosecutorial dogma that’s caused our prison populations to swell more than three times since Smollett was born.

The resolution of Smollett’s case moved away from that stance but in the wrong direction. A restorative justice model produces the same legal results — charges dismissed — but the feelings surrounding that disposition are much different because the community, in this case, Chicago, isn’t cheated of the reconciliation it deserves.

Foregoing restorative justice in this case didn’t do Smollett any favors, either. It’s true that he won’t go to prison or have a record, but he doesn’t know the harm he caused. He isn’t required to understand how his behavior affected other human beings or admit that his false report was a choice that could have been made differently.

If prosecutors would have embraced restorative justice principles, Smollett wouldn’t have dared to pose as the victim in this case, again, in a speech outside the courthouse like he did. He would have known better.

Restorative justice isn’t appropriate for every criminal case. Some victims don’t want it, and some defendants aren’t willing to participate. And we must admit that there are some corners of the human heart that restorative justice can’t reach: Certain harms can’t be healed through a mere meeting.

To find out more about Chandra Bozelko and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

Support Criminal Justice Reform? Then You’re with Kaepernick

The most interesting part of Super Bowl LIII wasn’t watching the game; it was seeing the celebrity seas part over former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick’s ostracization from the NFL.

Megastars Cardi B and Rihanna, activist Shaun King, actress Piper Perabo, and award-winning director Ava Duvernay all boycotted the event and indicated their support for the former 49ers quarterback, many tweeting #ImWithKap. It was the usual lineup of the social justice varsity.

Not only have each of those people positioned themselves against police brutality specifically, they’ve aligned themselves with criminal justice reform generally. Kaepernick’s ban from the NFL crystallizes one of the most important aspects of reform, and it’s not simply free speech or the abuse of black bodies. It’s the need for redemption and re-entry.

To me, whether or not you agree with Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality isn’t at issue. The NFL decreed that his taking a knee during the national anthem was wrong, and now Kaepernick’s facing lifetime punishment and lack of employment for that allegedly bad behavior.

It’s no different than the discrimination faced by poorer black men when they have to reveal past bad decisions on job applications by checking the “felony conviction” box. They are being kept out of an economy because they committed an offense.

Michelle Alexander, author of  The New Jim Crow, wrote that the purpose of the modern criminal legal system in the United States is racially motivated social control of black men to create “a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society.” Kap isn’t outside of society at large, but he’s out of the league and he’s being controlled, professionally speaking. The new Jim Crow is Roger Goodell.

It looks like non-celebs are making this issue unnecessarily complicated — and inconsistent.

Seventy-five percent of people polled last winter agreed that the current criminal justice system needs an overhaul because they know that mass incarceration itself is unpatriotic; too many people are locked up. And we economically bully people who’ve broken the law. And, yes, police cross the line sometimes.

Even though his protest is only a fraction of the larger reform agenda they claim to align with, a majority of people surveyed don’t think that Kap’s kneel is appropriate.

Because I’m citing separate surveys, it’s hard to tease out the hypocrites who are calling for reform out of one side of their mouths and screaming “Boycott Nike!” out of the other.

But there’s one easily identifiable person who’s rooting for reform while also sidelining Colin: owner of six-time Super Bowl-winning team the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft.

Just weeks ago, The REFORM Alliance, a new organization formed by rapper Meek Mill and Sixers’ owner Michael Rubin, announced its intention to free 1 million people from correctional control, namely probation and parole.

Motivated by their “collective disgust,” nine founding partners pledged to “leverage (their) considerable resources to change laws, policies, hearts and minds” to achieve reform of oppressive supervision systems. Kraft is one of the nine partners.

To be fair, Kraft is the only NFL team owner to be reported to have said that he thinks Kaepernick should be rehired in the league, so I don’t dismiss the Patriots’ owner as a total pretender.

But I’m not willing to call Kraft a prize, either. Back in September, when reporters asked him if he would hire Kaepernick, Kraft refused to talk about it.

The man who’s raising the sole Super Bowl ring-clad fist to champion rehabilitation and release from social control should let Kaepernick re-enter the NFL on his team; after all, Kap’s still younger than Kraft’s second-string quarterback.

But more than that, keeping Colin Kaepernick out of the league runs headlong into the justice reform movement that Kraft’s trying to advance.

Proper overhaul of the criminal justice system would never include blacklist on anyone’s employment. If you’re in favor of criminal justice reform, then you’re with Kap, too. It’s that simple.

To find out more about Chandra Bozelko and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.