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Race and class and the right to vote

ASK THIS | April 05, 2004

By John H. Britton

Q. What is the fair and equitable public policy response to growing demands among citizens in the states for reforms that would restore voting rights to ex-offenders who have fully paid their debt to society?

There is in the United States prima facie evidence of a dual standard in the application of justice based on race and class – from disparities in sentencing for similar crimes (crack distribution versus powder cocaine sales, for example) to the imposition of capital punishment. Many who experience disparate treatment are imprisoned on felony counts, while those with connections typically avoid incarceration and, thus, the suspension of their civil rights, including voting.

Arizona Senator John McCain’s wife, former President Ronald Reagan’s daughter, and incumbent Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s daughter all engaged in conduct prohibited by criminal codes. None of them went to prison or suffered significant legal consequences for their violations. Celebrities, business titans, and the super rich are similarly indulged. For precisely the same offenses, average citizens of modest means often receive mandatory minimum sentences with no possibility of parole.

By virtue of the accident of birth, prominent people often remain enfranchised because they avoid incarceration on the front end. Others of less social standing are stripped of the most fundamental right conferred by democracy because they are imprisoned routinely for behavior that is also relatively common among a higher caste.

Many argue, forcefully, that fair and equitable public policy should restore voting rights to ex-offenders who seek re-enfranchisement after they have "paid their debt to society" in full. What, if any, leadership role would you take in equitably addressing the injustices on both ends?

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