Our Citizenship Does Not Expire | Crooked Media
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Our Citizenship Does Not Expire

By John Levin

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If you commit a crime in a foreign country, you are subject to the laws and penalties of that country. You cannot expect to have a say in what those laws and penalties might be because you are not a legal resident of that country. You are not a citizen. Only citizens of democratic countries have a voice in how their countries are run. Only citizens have the right to vote. And yet, when I was sentenced to 18-years-to-life in 2012 for the murder of my wife, the state not only took my liberty, but also took a fundamental aspect of my citizenship as well, my right to vote. It was as if I had committed my crime in a foreign country. I am now subject to the laws of a land in which I no longer have a voice. I am, in effect, in exile in my own country.

Some would argue that being stripped of my right to vote is completely acceptable. But my loss of liberty did not include a revocation of my citizenship. Criminal behavior and citizenship are not, and should not, be mutually exclusive. In fact, Justice Warren Burger wrote that, “Citizenship is not a license that expires upon misbehavior” (Trop v. Dulles, 1958).

And certainly, even while incarcerated, I continue to exercise other fundamental rights afforded to free citizens of this country. I am allowed to practice the religion of my choice. My right to free speech is abridged but still intact. But as long as I remain incarcerated, my right to vote, my political voice, no longer exists. It is as if I have come down with a sort of state-imposed case of civic laryngitis.

Perhaps the reason my fellow prisoners and I are denied this specific aspect of citizenship is because the state wants to prevent us from having an influence on the policies and laws that shape the society from which we have been removed. But this view is flawed and short-sighted. It is flawed in part because several of the programs here at San Quentin are groundbreaking in their rehabilitative and restorative approaches to criminal justice. These programs and the incarcerated individuals involved with them have received national attention and have likely had far greater reach and impact than a prisoner casting a single vote in an election. I am fortunate enough to be part of a truly revolutionary vocational program called Code.7370 which teaches prisoners to design and build websites, code in JavaScript and, if sufficiently skilled, to develop applications for outside clients. As a member of this program, I have been interviewed on several occasions by nationwide news organizations, and my words were heard from coast to coast. San Quentin prisoners also produce a regular podcast, Ear Hustle, which has a listenership in the millions.

Denying prisoners the right to vote is short-sighted because it fails to acknowledge the fact that this country was founded on Constitutional ideals that support prisoner enfranchisement. It is counter to the concept of self-government so cherished by our founding fathers. Giving prisoners the right to vote also makes sense in terms of the current movement in support of criminal justice reform. As prisoners, we have an important voice in that current national political conversation. After all, who is better positioned to make the case for fair and humane criminal justice legislation than those of us who have experienced our criminal-justice system firsthand?

Re-enfranchising prisoners also makes sense because it is a potential means of reducing future criminal behavior. Having voices in the communities to which we will eventually return will reduce recidivism and will facilitate smoother re-entry into society as a whole. Much of what I feel in prison is the result of being isolated and disconnected from society. A greater sense of inclusion, of not feeling like a complete exile, would be a bridge that will allow prisoners to successfully reintegrate into mainstream society because society will no longer feel entirely alien to us.