A society of asterisks and exceptions
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.