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Expanding vote supports Maryland's falling recidivism rate

The debate about the voting rights of people who've committed crimes made me step back and scratch my head. Everyone has a moment like that, when something — in this case, a veto by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan of a bill that further liberalized felon voting — makes you stop and question what you'd always accepted as right and even righteous.

Like most people, I always accepted the idea that, if you're in prison, you should not be allowed to vote.

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More than that, I accepted the once-a-felon-always-a-felon idea that you should never get a chance to participate in democracy again. Commit a major crime, and you're a non-citizen for the rest of your life. It's a principle we inherited.

But in the age of mass incarceration, eyes and minds have opened to the great flaw of that thinking.

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It started with awareness of a sleeping giant of an issue: the nation's high and costly rate of recidivism, which was around 67 percent when I first looked into it a decade ago.

Not only did we lead the world in per capita incarceration, but we took corrections out of corrections. In the 1980s and 1990s, elected leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, passed laws that filled prisons and abided policies that turned them into human warehouses.

Most offenders, mostly male and mostly men of color, came out of our correctional institutions with little chance at successful re-entry. Six out of 10 committed crimes, or in some way violated terms of their releases, and returned to the correctional system within three years.

In Maryland, half of inmates released from the state's prisons returned to them within three years.

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Since then, the failure rate here has fallen. It was Gary Maynard, the former state corrections secretary, who pushed the effort to help inmates better prepare for release and get some additional support while on parole or probation.

At one point during Maynard's tenure, the recidivism rate fell to 43 percent.

According to Gerard Shields, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the most recent report calculated the statewide recidivism rate at 40 percent. That's a quiet success story.

You might have noticed that Democrats and Republicans have agreed on very little in recent decades.

But people across the ideological spectrum agree on the common-sense need to reduce recidivism.

This isn't about leniency or being soft on crime. It's about recognizing a fact — that some 90 percent of inmates will eventually be released from our prisons — and about breaking a destructive cycle. It's about reducing the number of repeat offenders, reducing unemployment in communities where it has been chronically high, and reducing family stress and dysfunction. And it's about reducing the costs of corrections and law enforcement.

This requires good programs inside the walls to prepare inmates for release. It means training and education, evaluations, counseling and follow-up. And it means encouraging ex-offenders, giving them a second chance, and helping them re-integrate into free society.

Restoring the right to vote is all part of that good effort.

And yet, some of the same people who support "restorative justice" still put up a fight over voting rights.

In 2007, for the first time, the Maryland General Assembly made felons who had completed their sentences eligible to register to vote. The change in the law effected 50,000 Marylanders.

A great thing, but it was one of the 2007 session's most hotly debated issues. The bill restoring voting rights to felons passed the Senate 28-19 and the House of Delegates 78-60, with substantial numbers of Democrats joining Republicans in opposition.

Last year, the General Assembly went further, extending voting rights to some 40,000 people on parole or probation. But Hogan vetoed that measure, saying those 40,000 Marylanders had not finished paying their debts to society and, therefore, had to wait longer to vote.

I step back and scratch my head.

Obviously, when you do a crime and serve time, you give up freedoms. In Maryland and in every state but two, your right to vote is suspended while you're behind bars. (In Maine and Vermont, everyone votes — period.)

But attitudes across the country are changing.

"Over the past two decades, more than 20 states have taken action (legislative or executive) to allow more people with past criminal convictions to vote, to vote sooner, or to access that right more easily," says the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

If you accept that we should do everything in our power to pull offenders back into the folds of citizenship, then what good comes of telling them they can't vote? That's just old, stubborn thinking, a counterproductive continuation of punishment that undermines all the wise efforts we've been making to heal, restore and re-integrate.

Good that the General Assembly voted to override the governor's veto. Where do I volunteer for the registration drive?

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