Today is Election Day in the United States, and amid all the news coverage and punditry, there will be one story all but guaranteed to be ignored: The fact that millions of American men and women will be denied the right to vote, some because they stole a car for a joyride, others because they sold small amounts of marijuana.
You've probably heard that the US is the biggest jailer in the world — 2.4 million people are behind bars in America today. That figure doesn't include the more than 7 million people under probation and parole. Nor does it count the 65 million Americans saddled for life with criminal records that often prevent them from getting educations, jobs, credit, and housing. And in many states, a criminal record strips US citizens — including 1 out of every 13 African American adults in this country — of their ability to vote in today's elections.
America's policy of mass incarceration is undermining democracy.
Mass incarceration is the consequence of a generation's worth of laws passed by state and federal legislators eager to win votes by playing upon the public's fear of crime. The war on drugs, mandatory sentencing laws that take discretion away from judges, "three-strikes" laws that lock up people for decades for minor crimes, and life without parole laws that condemn teenagers to living their entire adult lives behind bars have created a permanent underclass of poor, formerly incarcerated people, most of whom are black and Latino. This underclass includes not only the people with criminal records, but their families and others in the communities in which they live.
Today, small steps toward criminal justice reform are taking place across the country: a 25 percent prison population reduction in New York since 2001, or the release of 20,000 people from prison in California over the past three years. Even conservative lawmakers and leaders like Senator Rand Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Grover Norquist realize that continuing on this road is financially unsustainable. The criminal justice system has become a costly juggernaut that is pounding the life out of millions of our most vulnerable citizens without giving society a decent return on investment.
But there are voices that have been largely missing from the debate over reform: those of people in prison, the formerly incarcerated, and the families of both. No struggle for social justice has ever been won without the leadership and full engagement of the people most impacted. Think about the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, and today, the immigrants' rights movement.
It has never been proven that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between high incarceration rates and low crime rates.
I know firsthand about the potential power of the voices of the formerly incarcerated, having served six years in prison when I was a young man. But I am one of the lucky ones. When I got out, I was given opportunities to develop my skills, and I became a leader in the reform movement. People listen to me because I have been there. And there are thousands of others just like me who deserve the same opportunities.
In the immediate future, constituents must vocally encourage their US senators and representatives to support the Democracy Restoration Act (DRA), federal legislation that seeks to restore voting rights in federal elections to the millions of disenfranchised Americans who have been released from prison and are living peacefully in their communities, but who are still denied the right to vote.
The country's long-term aim should be to cut the country's prison population in half by the year 2030. This is an achievable goal. It has never been proven that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between high incarceration rates and low crime rates. And by empowering people and communities most affected by crime and incarceration to drive policy reform, we can eliminate ineffective and wasteful mandatory minimum, three-strikes, and truth-in-sentencing laws, and increase the use of community-based alternatives to incarceration programs.
Formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones need leadership training and the tools and resources to be advocates for change. They deserve a chance to play a part in transforming our failed criminal justice system into one befitting a country that values liberty and justice for all.
Glenn E. Martin is the founder of JustLeadershipUSA. Follow him on Twitter: @glennEmartin
Photo via Flickr