This year, about 18,000 prisoners will finish their sentences and return to their homes in communities across Louisiana. While an alarming number of those offenders will return to prison, a far greater number won’t. It doesn’t make headlines when an ex-offender gets a job, supports his family, and becomes a responsible member of the community. Yet thousands of our neighbors have done just that, and are now good citizens.
Unfortunately, our laws continue to punish many of these felons who have successfully reintegrated. Millions of formerly incarcerated Americans are denied the right to vote. It makes no sense to punish people who have turned their lives around. In fact, it is counterproductive because they get discouraged when their conviction makes them second-class citizens in spite of their contributions to the community.
When the judge drops the gavel and sentences offenders to prison, they are formally banished, stripped of their rights as citizens. Once they have paid their debt to society, it is equally important there be a point at which they are welcomed back as full members of the community. Restoring their right to vote costs nothing, and poses no threat to public safety. Yet it would be a very important way to acknowledge their success.
Fortunately, this is not a partisan issue. The Louisiana House of Representatives passed HB 265 with bipartisan vote.
I am a conservative, and I believe that committing crimes should carry consequences. However, as a conservative, I also believe that when people have paid their debts to society, they should be able to move on with their life. America is the land of second chances, and restoring voting rights is small but important step in welcoming offenders back into the community.
George W. Bush, when he was governor of Texas, signed the law restoring the vote to felons once they completed parole. A strong Christian Republican secretary of state in Alabama has recently ushered in reforms on this issue. We are joined by other conservatives such as the Koch Brothers in strongly supporting restoration of voting rights.
This not just a political issue. It also is a moral one. I am a Christian, and all followers of Christ are “called to a ministry of reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:18). The message of the Gospel is that Jesus came to give all of us a second chance. When our brothers and sisters fall — as Peter did when he denied Jesus, or King David when he murdered the husband of his mistress — we as Christians are called to restore them. At the very least, restoring them means opening our arms when they return to us and giving them every opportunity to lead a productive and virtuous life.
director, Center for Criminal Justice Reform
The American Conservative Union Foundation