Friday, April 20, 2018

Parolees deserve the right to vote

Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that would give paroled felons the right to vote through conditional pardons emphasizing that civic duty. This would impact more than 35,000 parolees in the Empire State.

Of course, Republicans across New York hurled vitriol at the Governor, saying it’s wrong to allow rapists, murderers and drug dealers to vote; Cuomo was only trying to secure votes by adding a new bloc to his base; and it was his latest attempt to “out-left” gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon.

While that wasn’t unexpected I still find it to run counter to the alleged principles of the Grand Old Party.

They claim to be the party of law and order and, at the same time, are more likely to count Christianity as offering the formative principles to this country and Republican policies. In either case, by casting aside parolees they are casting aside what the GOP counts as its foundation.

The party of law and order should have faith in the legal and penal systems. Judges, prosecutors, defenders, sheriffs, wardens, and correctional officers have an incredible task before them in helping to change those who committed crimes against society, whether it was something as minor as having drugs on their person or as significant as being engaged in gang violence. We empower and entrust them to educate convicts, teach them trades, introduce them to self-discipline, reform their behaviors, and make new men and women out of them. It’s a mammoth undertaking of resources – the US prison system costs taxpayers $228 billion per year.

If one of the returns on investment for all of that hard work, tough love and big money is parole – early release based upon good behavior and promise – we should trust those who helped get the parolees to that point and believe that those souls are ready for society.

If they are good enough to be released to the world outside of the prison walls, we would hope that they are good enough to secure and keep jobs (that is, if employers ban the box and overlook criminal records), pay taxes, and contribute to the economy and our communities. Once released, they are active members of our citizenry, with just a few conditions.

One of those conditions shouldn’t be denial of the right to choose their elected officials, vote on propositions, or have a say on their school budgets. For starters, it’s taxation without representation – something in total defiance of our republican form of government. Secondly, it’s illegal; the Fifteenth Amendment clearly states the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged. That amendment, by the way, was in response to failures of the Founding Fathers to recognize the full value of humanity, something similar to what Cuomo’s signing is attempting to overcome in our state law.

Cuomo’s detractors aren’t buying that. It seems as though the general consensus is “once a criminal always a criminal” and that they are a lesser people always and forever.

This is where the Republican Party’s co-opting of Christianity should come into play. Is turning one’s nose down on the past sins of another really the way a just people should think? The religion is based on redemption and the salvation of sinners so why shouldn’t those principles be practiced at large, especially towards those who paid their dues to society and were reformed by it? People shouldn’t claim to live up to the standards of their religion yet absolve themselves of its founding tenets.

Likewise, as another teaching of Christianity goes -- let he who is without sin cast the first stone. A lot of convicts and folks in the parole ranks were unlucky enough to get caught doing what so many other people do. New Yorker’s arcane Rockefeller Laws imprisoned folks for years for having possessed drugs -- how many people under the age of 70 can claim that they don’t know anyone who has used/uses marijuana or smokes it themselves? Similarly, how many thousands of customers leave bars and restaurants every day with a little too much alcohol in their systems and never get caught?

You’ve been reading my columns long enough to know that I’m a regular, vocal critic of many of Governor Cuomo’s policies. This time, I can’t be. I applaud him for giving back to parolees their right to participate in the inner workings of this great nation of ours. All of us want felons to ultimately become good citizens. Good citizens vote….so, let’s not deny them that right. It’s the just, legal, and American thing to do.    

From the 23 April 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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