A so­ci­ety of as­ter­isks and ex­cep­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - The writer is founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Bridge EdU.

This ses­sion, the Mary­land Gen­eral As­sem­bly over­whelm­ingly passed a bill that would have pro­vided peo­ple re­cently re­leased from pri­son an op­por­tu­nity to vote. It was a declar­a­tive mo­ment, show­ing that our law­mak­ers rec­og­nize an es­sen­tial part of pro­duc­tive cit­i­zen­ship is par­tic­i­pat­ing in our democ­racy.

Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) had the chance to make this pow­er­ful state­ment the law. In­stead, he used his veto pen. I urge him to re­con­sider that de­ci­sion, should the leg­is­la­ture take up the mea­sure next ses­sion.

Ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Public Safety and Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices, Mary­land has an es­ti­mated 22,000 peo­ple in­car­cer­ated and about 62,000 cases of ac­tive com­mu­nity su­per­vi­sion. How we pre­pare th­ese peo­ple for reen­try into so­ci­ety and how we pre­pare so­ci­ety for their reen­try should mat­ter to all of us. Con­sid­er­ing that about 90 per­cent of peo­ple in­car­cer­ated will be re­leased, this is not a con­ver­sa­tion that is nice to have; it is a must-have.

This bill was not about adding vot­ers to po­lit­i­cal rolls. It was about restor­ing cit­i­zens’ right to civic par­tic­i­pa­tion and en­cour­ag­ing them to ad­here to our so­ci­etal norms.

The av­er­age prisoner leaves con­fine­ment with what­ever was in his pock­ets at the time of ar­rest and a bus ticket. From there, the chal­lenges many peo­ple with felony records face upon re­turn— from lack of em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, to restor­ing fa­mil­ial bonds with part­ners and chil­dren, to re­stric­tions on hous­ing op­tions, to ed­u­ca­tional grants — are well-doc­u­mented and sig­nif­i­cant.

The re­cidi­vism rate in our state is north of 40 per­cent. If we do not al­low peo­ple to re­join so­ci­ety as equals, there is lit­tle in­cen­tive not to revert to old sur­vival memes, and bad de­ci­sions are eas­ier to make. That is not good for any of us. By push­ing peo­ple out of the demo­cratic process, we al­low or even en­cour­age a bad cy­cle to con­tinue.

This bill gave peo­ple re­leased from pri­son the right to join our voter-par­tic­i­pa­tion process with­out wait­ing un­til the com­ple­tion of pa­role or pro­ba­tion, which for many can last years. Not ev­ery­one gets pa­role or pro­ba­tion, only those who have ex­em­pli­fied wor­thi­ness to leave pri­son early. If our pe­nal sys­tem deems them pre­pared to reen­ter so­ci­ety, why do we main­tain miserly chal­lenges to their rein­te­gra­tion?

This is about more than a vote; it is about what that vote rep­re­sents. It rep­re­sents a voice. Many peo­ple con­victed of felonies don’t feel as if they are a part of our so­ci­ety. Dis­en­fran­chise­ment breeds deeper re­sent­ment and mis­trust of the gov­ern­ment and its con­stituents.

A stated in­tent of the Depart­ment of Public Safety and Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices is “sup­ply­ing of­fend­ers and for­mer-of­fend­ers the tools nec­es­sary to stay out of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.” Ei­ther we value pro­duc­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion as part of ref­or­ma­tion or we con­tinue to pun­ish peo­ple af­ter they have served their sen­tence. Our so­ci­ety can­not be one full of as­ter­isks and ex­cep­tions. If we want and need th­ese in­di­vid­u­als to re­turn to our com­mu­ni­ties and be law-abid­ing and par­tic­i­pa­tory, we need to sup­port leg­is­la­tion that al­lows them that path. If they feel like so­ci­etal out­casts, they will act ac­cord­ingly.

I ap­plauded our gover­nor when he spoke about re­think­ing crime and crim­i­nal jus­tice in our state. For Ho­gan, this would be a crit­i­cal first step.

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