A Gratuitous Punishment | Crooked Media
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A Gratuitous Punishment

By Anthony Starkes

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Should a human being ever be considered three-fifths of a person? In 1788, when drafting the Constitution, the Framers adopted a compromise in which slave owners were allowed to treat each slave as three-fifths of a person so that slave states would have greater representation in the Union and greater power to perpetuate the institution of slavery. It would take 80 years and a Civil War for the country to adopt the Fourteenth Amendment, which made African Americans full citizens. Two years later, the Fifteenth Amendment extended suffrage to African Americans, although it would be an additional 94 years before African Americans fully obtained the right to vote and have a voice in government through the exercise of that right. Today, we know African Americans should have been full citizens with the right to vote all along.

So is history repeating itself with a modern-day three-fifths compromise, California’s felon disenfranchisement law? I have been deprived of the right to vote due to felony mistakes I made during my youth. Like many African American youths who lacked an education and grew up in poverty in the 1970s and 1980s, my pathway to survival ran through dealing drugs and committing other crimes. While in prison for the past 25 years, I have been working to rehabilitate myself by getting a college education and learning other marketable skills that will help me transition back into society.

Being able to participate in the electoral process as part of my rehabilitation would allow me to learn to be a productive citizen as I re-enter society. According to Assemblywomen Shirley Weber, “Civic participation can be a critical component of re-entry and has been linked to reduced recidivism.” By changing California’s laws to allow prisoners and those on parole to vote, the rehabilitation process would help us learn about the electoral process, and how the government is run.

The California Sheriffs’ Association opposes re-enfranchisement. Its members argue that losing the right to vote is an appropriate consequence for felonious actions. There are more appropriate consequences for felonious actions than taking away people’s right to vote. Felony convicts are prohibited for life from obtaining a liquor license, which denies them the opportunity to become liquor-store and nightclub owners. Convicted felons are also not allowed to participate in jury duty or to receive public housing or Medicare. Close to 100 different consequences are connected to felony conviction laws in California. There is no need to disenfranchise citizens as well.

My position is that all felon disenfranchisement laws are racially motivated to control the electoral system by systematically keeping certain minority groups out of the decision-making process at all stages. Felon disenfranchisement in California disproportionately affects African American voters; in 2016, 63,390 African Americans in California were disenfranchised. While African Americans are less than 10 percent of California’s total population, they constitute nearly thirty percent of the state’s disenfranchised population.

African Americans are losing one of a democracy’s most important rights: the right to vote. As Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in a 1957 speech: “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind—it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact—I can only submit to the edict of others.” In King’s view, without the right to vote, we are less than free men because we have no voice in what happens in this country and are not treated as true citizens. I believe that California’s felon disenfranchisement law needs to be repealed, giving prisoners the right to vote and consigning the three-fifths Compromise to the trash bin of history once and for all.