A version of this post appears on the Justice Fellowship website.
In 2015, an estimated 5.8 million Americans are denied their right to vote. Christian leaders who set policy should act to correct this affront on redemption, restoration, and hope in our communities.
Prison Fellowship’s founder, Chuck Colson was convicted of a felony in a Watergate-related investigation. He went to prison for nearly a year and then reentered the community.
With a new foundation in his Christian faith, Chuck had been “Born Again.” He set out to earn a living, be a good parent, and he desired to use his experience for the benefit of others. In 1976, he founded Prison Fellowship to minister to those in prison that they might share in the solution and freedom he had gained. Despite his previous status and personal transformation, Chuck dealt with reestablishing his place at work, with his family, and collateral consequences like losing his law license and his right to vote.
It didn’t matter that he had repaid his debt and was now giving back to the community. It was not until 20 years later that then-Florida Governor Jeb Bush restored his voting rights. Today, there are between 1.7 to 2 million people who are denied their right to vote in Florida.
For nearly 20 years, Chuck was “disenfranchised” from voting because he was convicted of a felony. Even after someone has served their sentence, criminal convictions often function like a life-sentence, barring the most basic and inalienable right of citizenship in America. The right to vote is not taken away by a judge and jury.
Chuck and other Americans with felony convictions serve a life-long retributive punishment without benefiting a single victim. This punishment serves no benefit to public safety. Unnecessarily disenfranchising an entire class of people devalues human life, redemption, and hope. It is an affront to the core of our Christian faith. In Chuck Colson’s last public opinion Editorial in the Washington Post he asked, “Why punish with a voting ban?”
At Prison Fellowship, we advocate that punishment be proportionate and serve a greater purpose focused on accountability that restores the person who has been harmed, the person who has caused the harm, and the community. This should be done at sentencing, by a judge. Restoration is undermined when the government denies people the right to earn back the trust of the community and their place in society.
In America today, people with certain felony convictions can automatically and permanently lose the right to vote in 11 states including Delaware, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Iowa, Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona. In three of these states (Florida, Iowa and Kentucky) voting rights are stripped no matter what the conviction—though Kentucky Governor Beshear just reinstated that right to some Kentuckians.
Only two states, Vermont and Maine, allow people to vote while incarcerated. Thirteen states return voting rights immediately upon return to the community from prison: Michigan, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah and Hawaii.
The remaining states restore voting rights for people with felony convictions at various stages of completing probation and parole.
As Christians, we should ask our government leaders a very important question. Do they believe in redemption? For policymakers who uphold the Christian faith, we should ask them to remember what Jesus sacrificed for each of us, even though we did not deserve it. Regardless of your faith, our nation has always upheld second chances as a bedrock principle. We must let people with criminal convictions practice the rehabilitation we preach.
As a result of these state policies, an estimated 5.8 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of past felony convictions. Denying voting rights is just one of the many obstacles people with criminal convictions face after they reenter the community – very few of these have any legitimate link to protecting public safety. These unnecessary “collateral consequences” communicate that redemption and restoration is unavailable to an entire class of people, people just like Chuck.
To this end, Prison Fellowship has created the Second Prison Project—a movement of people who believe in extending legitimate second chances. The Second Prison Project works to eliminate the negative perception of the 65 million Americans with a criminal record through acts of advocacy, service, and leadership. Led by Jesse Wiese, who himself has faced huge obstacles upon returning from prison – even after successfully graduating college and law school, The Second Prison Project is dedicated to ending perpetual punishment in America by unlocking millions of second chances. Click here to learn more about The Second Prison Project and Prison Fellowship’s work to advance the cause of the 65 million Americans living today with a criminal record.
The right to vote speaks to our country’s expression of morals and values more than the practical application of political power. Christian and other faith leaders should join together in restoring the right to vote for all.
Craig DeRoche is an Emeritus Member of the Faith and Justice Fellowship. Craig serves as a member of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections. Craig is also a former speaker of the House in Michigan and author of the book Highly Functional: A Collision of Addiction, Justice and Grace.