In a wide-ranging speech at the NAACP National Convention on Tuesday, President Obama added his voice to the large chorus of leaders from across the political spectrum calling for sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system: from eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline, to reversing overcrowding and appalling conditions in our prisons and jails, to improving opportunities for successful re-entry for people with criminal convictions.
One of the lines of the speech that garnered the most applause touched on the issue of prisoner re-entry:
Let’s follow the growing number of our states and cities and private companies who have decided to “Ban the Box” on job applications so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot in a job interview. And if folks have served their time, and they have re-entered society, they should be able to vote.
The pairing of “Ban the Box” laws with voter re-enfranchisement is no accident. Both policies touch on a central theme in the president’s speech — that effective criminal justice reform must reach beyond the walls of jails, courtrooms, and prisons to institutions such as schools, workplaces, and even the voting booth. Rather than treating people with criminal convictions as pariahs, we must give them the tools to reintegrate into their community once they are released from prison — and one of those tools is the vote. The president did not stake an outlier position. Over the past two decades, more than 20 states have taken action to ease felony disenfranchisement policies. And bipartisan consensus around criminal justice reform — including support for rights restoration from leaders like Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton — has been critical to this momentum.
Nor is President Obama the first in his administration to speak on restoring voting rights to people with criminal convictions. In early 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a historic speech at Georgetown Law Center about the ignominious history and continuing injustice of felony disenfranchisement laws. As we pointed out then, Holder’s specific proposal — requiring people to complete all terms of their sentence and pay all fines before they can have their right to vote restored — did not go as far as many current state policies. A better approach — one that is more consistent with the goals of enabling successful reintegration and preventing recidivism by those who are living and working in our communities — restores voting rights to eligible Americans immediately upon their release from prison, and does not make voting rights contingent on wealth.
On Tuesday, the president’s carefully-chosen words, calling on all those who have served their time and re-entered society to be allowed to vote suggests an important shift in the administration’s preferred policy that is more consistent with this approach. Such a change, if implemented nationwide, would affect an astounding 4 million Americans who are no longer imprisoned but continue to be disenfranchised.
Today, President Obama will tour the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma, becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. “I’m going to shine a spotlight on this issue, because while the people in our prisons have made mistakes,” he said Tuesday, “they are also Americans, and we have to make sure that as they do their time, and pay back their debt to society, that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around.”
For those of us outside prison walls, Obama’s visit is an important reminder of our shared humanity and citizenship with the millions of Americans behind bars or living with past convictions. Restoring the right to vote provides a second chance at citizenship to people who are transitioning back into their communities, attempting to seize that possibility of turning their lives around. The president is a welcome addition to a growing number of voices seeking to ensure that returning citizens are given every chance to do so.