Jailhouse Rock 

Let’s talk about felons and the formerly incarcerated and their right to vote. The laws vary state to state across this fine land. For example, in Maine and Vermont even people currently in prison can vote. Meanwhile, Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia say once a felon, never a citizen again (except by special appeal). Texas is firmly in the middle: When a felon’s finished his sentence, visited his probation and parole officers for the last time, he’s automatically allowed back on the voters roll.

I went to a recent community summit on offender re-entry sponsored by KLRN-TV and Making Connections. Afterward, I caught up with the star of the forum, reformed 30-year criminal William “Pete” Duncan.

Shortly after his last release from the Baltimore Prison system, Duncan found himself presented with what he thought was a ridiculous question. It was 2004, and the director of his treatment center wanted to know who he was voting for in the presidential election.

“I said ‘C’mon man, you know how many times I’ve been convicted, you know I ain’t voting,’” he recalled. The director proved him wrong, and helped him register. Nine days later, his sister said she had a letter for him from the Voters’ Registry. Come election day, he had to ask for assistance at the voting booth.

“It was really an experience. It gave me a sense of belonging, that you `are` actually into something, you belong to something. I was getting counted as somebody important.”

Becoming politically active after (or during) a prison sentence is no anomaly. Malcolm X comes to mind. And theoretically speaking, an ex-con is less likely to reoffend if he feels like a member and a stakeholder in our community.

San Antonio is at the forefront of the “restorative justice” movement, a corrections system that calls for inclusionary rather than exclusionary methods of offender rehabilitation. A few local leaders, like Chuck Slaughter of the Texas Alliance for the Formerly Incarcerated, and LULAC’s Henry Rodriguez, have been registering ex-cons independently. Slaughter did hard time for marijuana possession and Rodriguez for murder without malice, an offense no longer on the books.

“I think it’s very important for a person to not just come back and get with society and reintegrate, but to say I’m a law-abiding citizen and I have been cleared of my sins,” Rodriguez said. “You come out and feel like you’re not part of society. Once you get back in the stream of being in society, you feel better.”

Slaughter added: “When you participate in the community as a law-abiding citizen doing your civic duty to uphold the law of the land, you’re doing what Americans are expected to do.”

A Devil’s Advocate would say that get-out-the-vote efforts should focus on the law-abiding political idlers, not criminals who’ve already proven their disregard for civil society. Registering ex-offenders is largely a Democratic effort, and Republican critics might cite this as an example of bottomfeeding; their opponents would court anyone if it meant power for Democrats.

There’s probably some truth to that, but the Double-Devil’s Advocate would rebut that Republicans are still spending money raised by after-the-fact white-collar criminals, (ahem, Arthur Andersen), and until they return every filthy penny they should shut their Beelzebub yaps.

More by Dave Maass



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