The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
As the country turned its attention to the Thanksgiving holiday last week, you may have missed the news of a significant development in criminal justice reform at the state level. On November 24, Kentucky Governor Steven L. Beshear issued an executive order to begin a process to automatically restore voting rights to over 140,000 nonviolent ex-felons in his state. An additional 30,000 Kentuckians currently in prison or on probation are expected to gain the right to vote as they are released from supervision over the next several years.
Beshear’s announcement marks a dramatic shift in policy in Kentucky, which had previously been one of only a handful of states to permanently bar those convicted of a felony from voting. By contrast, the vast majority of states prohibit felons from voting temporarily while they serve in prison or are on probation, but have processes in place to restore voting rights after that time. Vermont and Maine are the only states in the country that do not restrict voting rights for felons at any time. Across the country, around six million Americans are ineligible to vote because of their criminal records.
The restoration of the vote for ex-felons is an issue that lies at the crossroads of debates about voting rights and criminal justice reform. Proponents of voting restoration for ex-felons generally argue that the right to vote is a fundamental liberty that should not be curtailed for people who have already served a sentence for a mistake they made in the past. They also note that felon disenfranchisement laws perpetuate the racial disparities present in the criminal justice system – black men have lost their right to vote at a rate seven times the national average.
Some opponents maintain, however, that it is fair and in keeping with the spirit of American democracy to remove the right to participate in governance for those who break the law. Furthermore, these individuals suggest that, although ex-felons may have served their time in prison, society is not obligated to forget their previous behaviors or to remove all restrictions on their current actions.
Our Jewish tradition instructs us both of the importance of the right to vote (“A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” – Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a) and of the tremendous responsibility to society each of us carries with that right (“Do not separate yourself from the community” – Pirke Avot 2:5). We are left to decide what is meant by “community,” and what behaviors qualify as separation. Do people who have committed felonies remain in our community and thus deserve to be consulted? Or by the act of violating our laws do they separate themselves from our community and violate a central tenet of our faith?
Image courtesy of Flickr/Sean Hobson.