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June 22, 2016

Making the case for enfranchisement to create a "prison constituency"

Corey Brettschneider has this lengthy new commentary at Politico with this lengthy full headline: "Why Prisoners Deserve the Right to Vote: Giving inmates the vote isn’t just constitutionally the right thing to do, it could also help the country solve one of its most intractable problems." I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts from its closing sentiments:

Perhaps the most important reason to allow prisoner voting is that prisons, not just prisoners, would benefit. Prisoners need the vote to serve as the “natural defenders” of their own interests. But in defending their own interests, prisoners could substantially improve the prison system itself.

We can start with the issue of prisoner abuse. We already know that prisoners are subject to abusive and inhumane conditions. In a 2011 ruling that held overcrowded California prisons in violation of the Eighth Amendment, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that in California alone, an inmate “needlessly dies every six or seven days.” Plenty of other prison practices, such as solitary confinement, are just now receiving public scrutiny, and there are likely more troubling conditions we don’t know about. Under the current system, ending abusive practices requires years of expensive litigation as prisoners sue over maltreatment and prisons adjust to the rulings. We could improve prisons much more quickly and cheaply by creating a political constituency of prison voters.

How would that work? Obama’s historical 2015 visit to a federal prison was noteworthy because politicians rarely listen to those incarcerated. A prison and jail constituency, numbering roughly 2 million across 50 states, would make it routine for politicians to hold town halls and seek ways to improve prison and jail conditions from those who are subjected to them. This is not coddling prisoners. More and more politicians are looking to reform our criminal justice system, and this would be a common sense way to help them identify needed changes.

Of course, granting the right to vote is not enough to create a robust prison constituency. Prisoners will also need to be granted the right to speak freely and receive information, both of which are rights that are often limited for prisoners currently. Superstar litigator and former Solicitor General Paul Clement has already filed a lawsuit defending the right of prisoners to gain access to news about public life. Indeed, government can be held accountable only when citizens have information about the actions of their representatives.

Many will resist the idea of a prison constituency. The point of prisons, they say, is to inflict punishment, not to allow organizing. But this is shortsighted. Prison is itself already severe punishment. The deprivation of liberty and the loss of control over everyday interaction, including the ability to see one’s loved ones on a daily basis, are all severe constraints imposed by incarceration. One can be punished without being subjected to civic exile.

Some will argue that it is enough to allow prisoners to regain their right to vote after release. But we cannot expect prisoners to be deprived of all rights and then emerge from prison ready to use them well. The new consensus around post-release enfranchisement demands a smarter way to think about prisoners’ political rights behind bars. A prison constituency with rights to vote and related rights of free speech can engage in civic activism that will continue after release. Although voters in Massachusetts saw prisoner political participation as a kind of insurrection, it is nothing like the violent insurrections that marked prisons of the 1970s. As Joe Labriola, chairman of a Massachusetts civic prison organization called the Norfolk Lifers Group, put it, “In the ’70s, we thought we could make change with violence. Our whole point now is to make prisoners understand that we can make changes by using the vote. We have the ability to move prisons in a new direction.”

Research by Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen suggests another reason to care about voting in prison: They show that even temporary gaps in voting will have a long-term impact on participation. If we really care about felons’ post-release political participation, it is important that they be able to participate while they are in prison....

The creation of a prison constituency is not yet on the national agenda. But the increasing end to post-felony disenfranchisement makes this a good time to think about deeper changes to the way we treat the incarcerated. In the meantime, alternative measures could move things in the right direction: We should affirm nationally and, if need be, litigate for the right of prisoners to form PACs on the model of the Massachusetts group. Although legitimate concerns exist about the impact of PAC money on politics, these committees do provide a way to further a group’s policy interests. We can no longer grant that right to non-incarcerated citizens as a matter of free speech and deny it to prisoners, who are, according to the Supreme Court, citizens no less. The backlash from Massachusetts’ citizens was from an era in which mass incarceration was lauded and prison organizing was anathema in national politics. But today, citizens from both political parties are mobilizing against the harsh prison policies of the 1990s. Giving prisoners the right to free political speech is a sensible corrective to our misguided practice of mass incarceration.

In the end, restoring these basic rights is not only the right thing to do constitutionally; it could also present positive solutions to a major national political problem. The prison system would be more effective if it were accountable to its constituents. Prisoners have often committed heinous crimes. But they remain a part of our democratic polity, and we can learn from what they have to say.

June 22, 2016 at 09:42 AM | Permalink

Comments

ACS speaker talks clemency etc.

http://www.acslaw.org/news/video/neil-eggleston-keynote-address

Posted by: Joe | Jun 22, 2016 11:02:29 AM

Prisoners are more at the state's mercy than any other citizens, and thus should be heard on how the state is run - good government is life and death to them, so they have more of an interest in it than anyone.

Posted by: azazel | Jun 22, 2016 1:42:01 PM

Yes, let's give murderers the franchise.

This is a dressed up means of getting more 'rats in office.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 22, 2016 3:19:19 PM

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