Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Restoring Dignity to Former Felons


By Homer S. White

State Senator Damon Thayer is preventing a proposed amendment to the Kentucky constitution that would restore voting rights to former felons from moving forward. Furthermore, nine of the 12 members of Thayer’s State and Local Government Committee say that they intend to support the measure, but Thayer still refuses to let it be heard. Surely this is an important proposal that merits full consideration (the proposal passed the House last month with strong bipartisan support).

Nearly 129,000 former felons in Kentucky, who have served their prison time, probation and parole, have not been able to navigate the existing pardoning process which requires an individual pardon from the governor. Tens of thousands more Kentuckians will be in the same situation in coming years. Conversations with former felons indicate that most have not heard about the pardon process and don't know how to initiate it. Even officials in the Kentucky justice system and the state's county clerk offices often don't know how to help people through the process.

We have to bear in mind that persons recently released from prison are at a particularly vulnerable point in their lives. If we want them to re-engage in society in a positive way, we should provide them with every possible encouragement to do so, and work to remove hurdles that stand in their way.

The current pardon process is entirely dependent upon the sitting governor. It's less complicated under Gov. Beshear, but was quite difficult under Gov. Fletcher. A civil right as fundamental as the right to vote should not be subject to the whim or favor of any one individual.

Thayer alludes to the fact that the current proposal, as currently written, does not automatically restore rights to those who have committed murder or sexual abuse. He speculates that this may create “two classes” of felons – those who regain their rights when they have completed their sentences and those who must still rely “on the favor of the governor.”

This is a point worthy of consideration.

I would prefer to restore rights without exception. After all, the most dangerous voters are those who use their rights to advance their own interests at the expense of the common good.

For example, lobbyists for business interests routinely support laws that give their business a special and unfair advantage, often at taxpayer expense. Yet, we would never think of denying such persons the vote. The right to vote is just that sacred.

A former murderer, on the other hand, never has an opportunity to vote for politicians who pledge to "make murder easier," so his vote is far less likely to damage the common good. Accordingly, there is even less reason to deny this person the right to participate in our democracy.

Nevertheless, the current proposal, as it stands, has widespread support, and it would at least restore rights to nearly all former felons. It’s a fair compromise.

The proposal is more than just a technical device to make the restoration process cheaper and more reliable than tens of thousands of individual pardons, though it will certainly accomplish this aim.

Restoring the vote will also restore the dignity of the human person. Picture a young woman who gets mixed up in drugs and goes to prison. Many of us know such a person -- she may be a childhood friend, someone we went to school with, a relative, even our child. By allowing her the right to vote after she serves her time sends a message to this young woman that she has dignity, that we need and value her positive involvement in society, that we want her to rebuild her life, and that when she does so we are delighted to welcome her back.

Former felons have served their debt to society. Kentucky must allow democracy, dignity, and reason to have a chance.
White is a professor of mathematics at Georgetown College.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Kentucky Forum. 3/10