Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said last month he “believe[s] in second chances” when it comes to people with past criminal convictions. Then, he was talking about a bill that would protect the personal information of returning citizens. In the days ahead, however, he will have an important opportunity to give a second chance to approximately 40,000 Marylanders by signing SB 340, which would restore voting rights for citizens with criminal convictions living and working in their communities. Current law bars these individuals from voting if they are on probation or parole. The right to vote is an important piece of a meaningful second chance for citizens rejoining their neighbors and families. We hope the governor will sign SB 340 without delay.
SB 340 is important because it gives citizens a second chance to be contributing members of their communities. The right to vote reinforces the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship, installs civic values that can be passed on to children and families, and facilitates the successful transition from incarceration to civilian life.
When people return to their families after incarceration, we grant them the rights of living in a free society and expect them to live up to the responsibilities that come with that. But by barring people from voting, current Maryland law denies them the most fundamental right and obligation of citizenship. Through the right to vote, SB 340 gives returning citizens the opportunity to fulfill the obligations of citizenship and engage with their communities — with no reduced expectations.
The right to vote hands returning, engaged citizens a further opportunity: to strengthen Maryland’s democracy by passing civic values onto their children. Research shows that voting is a modeled, pro-social behavior — that when children see their parents vote, they are more likely to do so when they grow up. And we believe as a matter of principle that our democracy is stronger when every eligible citizen takes part in it. Giving people the right to vote will not only make them voters, but will also position them to spread their voting habit to others.
We all benefit when we give our fellow citizens a second chance. What makes rights restoration so compelling is that it produces benefits for both returning citizens and the wider public at little to no cost. From a fiscal perspective, giving people the right to vote is not a costly government program. From a law enforcement perspective, SB 340 will also help returning citizens by giving them a stake in their communities and incentivizing them to live up to that stake. This is the sort of investment that makes a person feel a part of their community and less likely to commit crimes again. Law enforcement organizations support rights restoration because they see the right to vote as a meaningful tool in the re-entry process.
Put another way, rights restoration is a smart-on-crime policy. There is no evidence that disenfranchisement has a deterrent effect on crime or that withholding the right to vote to people out of incarceration keeps them on the right side of the law. In fact, research indicates the opposite: that people with the right to vote recidivate less often than those without it. There is a place for punishment in our criminal justice system, but only when it makes sense.
Here’s what makes the most sense: treating people judged ready to rejoin their communities like the law-abiding, engaged citizens we expect them to be. SB 340 would give people a second chance not by handing them anything but the rights and obligations of their citizenship — and all the potential that comes with it. We hope Gov. Hogan agrees, and that he signs this bill.