With passage of the 13th and 14th amendments, America created two of the greatest loopholes in the country’s legal code. Immediately following their introduction, the language of the amendments led to Jim Crow, convict leasing, and chain gangs. Over 150 years later, we are seeing further harmful results of these laws in states that disenfranchise felons.
Thankfully, some states are beginning to examine their policies of disenfranchisement, and Florida is no exception. On February 1, Florida U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled the state’s system for disenfranchising felons is not only unconstitutional, but possibly tainted by racial, religious, and political bias. The review board system in the Sunshine State, according to the judge, is “arbitrary and exceedingly slow.” While he did not offer any specific guidance on how the state panel should proceed moving forward, Judge Walker wrote that the voter restoration system must change.
In Florida, 1.5 million citizens are unable to vote due to convictions. As with all things in this country, a disproportionate percentage of these citizens are either people of color, the working poor, or both. Due to disenfranchisement being a remnant of chattel slavery, it has roots as far back as the Reconstruction Era and is skewed in order to remove minorities from the electorate, as well as capitalize off their free labor through harsher and longer sentences. Studies prove this to be true, as there is ample evidence of innocent people pleading guilty or being falsely convicted due to the difficulty of navigating through our justice system. This is particularly the case for people unable to afford bail and forced to prepare a defense while imprisoned, or who must rely on overextended public defense lawyers.
For people of color, this system is especially burdensome. Blacks are incarcerated at a rate that is 5.1 times higher than that of whites, according to the sentencingproject.org, and Latinos are imprisoned at 1.4 times the rate of their white counterparts. These numbers show there is a racial bias involved with imprisoning people of color. It follows, then, that disenfranchising felons and removing their access to political power is likely racial as well.
In order to remedy this, and the plethora of other issues we are facing at the local and federal level, we need an electorate that is as active as possible, and as diverse as this country is. One way to achieve this is by returning voting rights to citizens who have served their time and are reentering the general population. We should do this, not just for those falsely convicted and sentenced, but for those who truly were guilty and are finished paying their debt to society.
As Judge Walker wrote, “these citizens are subject to the consequences of bills, actions, programs, and policies that their elected leaders enact and enforce.” By disenfranchising felons who have already served time, we are sentencing them to a life of political impotence, leaving large swaths of the population accountable to a government that is unaccountable to them. For our democracy’s sake, let’s ensure Florida isn’t the last state to overturn discriminatory disenfranchisement practices.