Florida’s Amendment 4 passed on Tuesday, with 64 percent in favor and 36 percent against. The amendment will re-enfranchise felons who have served their sentences, as long as their conviction was not for murder or a felony sex offense. This process will now be automatic, without need to apply for a reinstatement of voting rights, and will take effect on January 8, 2019.
This means that by next year, Florida will have more than 1 million new voters, if estimates by the Sentencing Project are correct. In 2016, they projected that around 1.5 million people in Florida were ineligible to vote because of felony convictions, but included people with murder and sex offense convictions in that number.
Florida might be giving people back their voting rights, but they’re still restricting other rights from released felons. It’s time, in light of the passage of this amendment, and with wide bipartisan support, to consider the other ways felons are restricted after serving their sentences and how to better facilitate ex-offenders in reintegrating into society. Restricting the full entry of former felons into society increases the risk that they will re-offend, and high recidivism rates contribute to America’s expensive prison system. Restoring voting rights can help with that, but it’s one of many necessary steps.
How Do We Give Felons A Better Shot?
In America, there are some 2.3 million people incarcerated in prisons and jails, with 97 percent of them expected to be released at some point. Many of those releases end in recidivism, often involving a return to prison, costing the American taxpayer billions of dollars. Studies place this figure upwards of $182 billion per year.
There are clear indicators of things that make a difference between those who leave prison and stay out, and those who end up serving time again, and following the numbers is important since the cost of jailing people is so incredibly high for taxpayers. One of the best indications for whether someone will stay out of prison and reintegrate into society is whether they’re able to secure a job post-release.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington D.C. tracked released federal prisoners from 2002 to 2006 and found that 50 percent of those who did not find employment during their period of supervised release (a period that typically lasts between two and five years, depending on the sentence and crime) were sent back to prison. They either re-offended with a new crime or violated the terms under which they were released from prison.
In contrast, their study found that 93 percent of people who found employment for all of supervised release did not return to prison, and successfully reintegrated into society. The contrast between these figures is striking, and the long-term benefits to our communities if we could have fewer ex-offenders committing repeat crimes should bring far more than just voting rights into play for former felons.
In Florida, more than $25 million was raised in support for Amendment 4. There have also been studies done on whether voting rights matter for recidivism rates for felons; proponents of restoration point out that when you re-enfranchise a former offender, it helps bring a healthier perspective and outlook to former felons.
Instead of seeing themselves on the fringes, separated from society, unable to participate or enact change, they are legitimized in their community, which helps reduce the behaviors that lead to criminal offenses. People who had the ability to vote have been less likely to reoffend than those who were unable to, although more research must be done.
Restoring Voting Rights Is Just The First Step
Florida taking this step, whether it was for potential political gain or not (with many new voters expected to vote for Democrats), is helping citizens become productive members of society again. If we’re judging that a person is safe to release back into society, no longer needing to be contained in a prison facility, having served his or her time, then we must help these people truly rejoin our ranks.
There is no benefit in releasing people then ostracizing them. Being a member of society means far more than just being allowed to vote in elections, and if Americans want to decrease the exorbitant amount of tax dollars being funneled into prisons, it’s time to help figure out ways to end the cycles of repeat offenses and divided families. Florida might have taken a first step here, but more must be done.