In the 2018 Colorado legislative session, Sen. Steve Fenberg, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg introduced a bipartisan bill regarding former felons‘ voting rights in Colorado. So why should you care about former felons understanding and exercising their right to vote? Senate Bill 150: concerning measures to facilitate voter registration of individuals in the criminal justice system, and, in connection therewith, is just a small change in the broken prison system that could make the transition from prison to normal society much smoother. When an ex-prisoner feels more engaged in society, such as by voting, they are less likely to be re-incarcerated. This bill helps inform parolees of their voting rights, which is a simple step to help them reintegrate into society following their sentence. Additionally, it will decrease Colorado‘s recidivism rate so that our tax dollars can be rerouted to serving other parts of Colorado.
Recently I spoke with an ex-felon, Chris, who has been in and out of the criminal justice system for most of his adult life. When Chris was still in high school, he began working for a street gang by driving people around. While working in this environment, Chris got swept up into the business and became addicted to methamphetamine. Things seemed to spiral quickly for Chris after this. He started making more money selling drugs and being the enforcer for the group. It was approximately two months of this until he was caught and charged with several crimes. Following his trial, he was sentenced to five years in a halfway house. While staying in the halfway house, Chris relapsed on methamphetamine and was sent to prison for a year. When I asked him about his experience over that year, he described it as a dog-eat-dog world. “I‘m out for myself and I was constantly getting into altercations,” he stated about his life in prison. When talking with Chris, he told me he was currently living in a halfway house to make his transition back into society smoother. Today, Chris has been released from the halfway house on parole and is currently working as a landscaper in Colorado.
Understanding Chris‘ story has helped me realize why people in the criminal justice system have such a hard time rekindling their lives after their sentence. Not only is it extremely difficult to get a job or find a place to live, but it‘s hard to feel valued in society. I asked Chris if he would vote after he was off parole and his response didn‘t surprise me in the slightest. “Looking at (how) corrupt and unfair society can be towards people that are in my shoes,” he stated, “honestly, I don‘t think my opinion or my voice would matter.” This statement made me reflect on my own perspective and ask myself why I truly believe felons deserve to know about their rights. The truth is, prison is hard, but society is even harder when you‘ve been incarcerated. If we take away any chance they might have at starting a new, crime-free life, then we‘re never allowing them to be better and grow from their mistakes.
When ex-felons are more engaged in society, they are less likely to commit the same crimes again. Felon disenfranchisement takes out a significant section of the electorate, which means politicians, from both parties, are not mandated to appeal to non-voting citizens. According to J. Siegel, a Ph.D. sociology graduate at the University of Michigan, when we lessen opportunities for people to engage in decisions being made about their daily lives, it weakens their desire to participate in democracy. It lessened Chris‘ desire to vote, even though he knows he‘ll have the opportunity again one day. If Senate Bill 150 can make registering to vote more accessible for ex-felons, perhaps they‘ll feel more valued within society and be less likely to recidivate.
Life is full of second chances. Many of the people incarcerated today made a mistake in their lifetime that skewed their course, but that doesn‘t mean they don‘t deserve a second chance once they‘ve served their time. This bill can help reintegrate former felons and encourage them to participate in democracy. Senate Bill 150 has the potential to help millions of Coloradans that have made a mistake in their lifetime and are simply trying to get back on their feet.