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Let (Some) Criminals Vote

At The Atlantic, Patrick Appel writes a quick appeal to America
to "let criminals vote." He makes a solid argument. Disenfranchisement
raises concerns about racism and the abuse of civil rights for partisan
political gain. It's a foolish way to go about punishment if we're at
all interested in rehabilitation:

[I]t's hard to see
how implementing a form of civic death helps former inmates reintegrate
into society. Even if one grants that certain morally challenged
offenders—murderers, say—do not belong in the voting booth, surely we
could have judges determine who is fit to vote on a case-by-case basis,
rather than excluding all criminals in the blanket laws of state

Unfortunately, Appel overstates his
case. What standard would those judges use to determine which criminals
deserve to be enfranchised? Appel doesn't answer that question,
probably because answering it would drain rhetorical force from his
writing. ("Let Criminals Vote" becomes "Don't Let Criminal X Vote. Do
Let Criminal Y Vote.") Describing such a standard would mean writing at
length about the classes of wrongdoers who surely don't deserve the right to vote, and he wants to write about the classes who do. Even when he's acknowledging that some disenfranchisement is just, he only does so in a hypothetical: "If one grants..."

The real problem with the criminal justice system is not that it disenfranchises criminals, but that it disenfranchises too many
criminals. As long as Appel believes that "citizens should be denied
basic rights only when a clear threat is posed to the public good," the
burden of proof should rest on the government to prove that a criminal
or class of criminals doesn't deserve suffrage. As it stands, the
system defaults on stripping so many criminals of the franchise that it
risks punishing minor crimes disproportionately.

There are
probably good arguments for disenfranchising lots of criminals. Appel
doesn't dwell on that fact (though I think he knows it). Giving up the
conceit that we should enfranchise all criminals is a good first step
toward developing fair standards that could enfranchise most of them.


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