I guess this weekend’s theme is “things I believed about the United States when I was young and naive”. Today’s edition is the idea that the US has ever been a democracy. There are a number of ways in which you could approach this issue, but today we’re talking about felon disenfranchisement. See, when slavery was “ended” by the 13th amendment, an exception was explicitly made for people who had been convicted of a crime. In the generations since, the Land of the Free has become one of the most incarcerated populations on the planet, private prisons are pushing to lock up more people, and people enslaved by the US law enforcement system generate 11 billion dollars in goods and services annually. There are many ways in which this system is enforced and maintained, but one of them is the practice of felony disenfranchisement. If you’ve got a bunch of enslaved people, and you want to keep that free labor force, the it’s important to make sure that the slaves don’t have a say in the laws that make them slaves. For most people, it’s probably not too hard of a sell to say that if you’re locked up, you shouldn’t have the right to vote. You’re being punished with a loss of freedom, so why not add voting in along with that? Now, I personally disagree with that, but what’s really sinister, is when a state, like Mississippi for example, makes the ban on voting a lifelong punishment.
You got convicted of robbing a store at 18? Congratulations, you are now cut out of having any voice in this “democracy”. It sure seems like this ought to be illegal, for all I think it’s entirely in keeping with the original spirit of the US constitution. Fortunately, we may be seeing some movement in the right direction on this; from August 4th:
A federal appeals court on Friday struck down Mississippi’s Jim Crow-era policy of permanently revoking voting rights from certain people with felony convictions, ruling that it is unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
The 2-1 panel ruling is a surprise victory from the conservative fifth circuit court of appeals just over a month after the US supreme court refused to hear a challenge to the discriminatory law.
Before Friday’s ruling, Mississippi’s felony disenfranchisement law denied a higher percentage of its residents the right to vote than any other states in the United States. The policy blocked more than 10% of the adult population from voting if they had ever been convicted of one of 22 crimes, including murder, rape, bribery, theft and arson. The vast majority – more than 90% – of those people are no longer in prison.
The state’s policy also disproportionately affected Black voters, with nearly 16% of the Black voting age population prevented from casting a ballot because of a prior felony conviction.
In its ruling, the court found that the state’s policy serves no penological purpose.
“By severing former offenders from the body politic forever, [the state’s policy] ensures that they will never be fully rehabilitated, continues to punish them beyond the term their culpability requires, and serves no protective function to society,” the opinion said. “It is thus a cruel and unusual punishment.”
I believe that our criminal justice system is designed, among other things, to create and maintain a criminal underclass, and felon disenfranchisement, where it exists, plays a big role in that. It’s good to see this ruling, and I very much hope that it will be upheld. The so-called Justice System in the United States is a travesty, and prisons are basically giant torture factories by design. We have a lot of work to do to dismantle that, but this is a step in the right direction. I’ll leave you with a discussion on this from the folks at The Majority Report: