In Alabama, if you are convicted of a felony and sent to prison, not only do you lose your freedom for the duration of your sentence, but you also lose your citizenship–even after you have served your term. In Alabama, and a few other states, even after you have served your term and are released from prison, you still can’t vote.
Well, some believe that the loss of voting rights is part of the punitive process for those who commit crimes. State Representative Mike Hubbard, for instance told the Montgomery Advertiser recently that he opposes the idea that convicted felons should have voting rights restored automatically upon completion of sentence. He favors, instead, having former inmates make application to have voting privileges restored.
“Going to the parole board to have voting rights restored is part of the price they pay for breaking the law.”
There is a troubling absence of grace in all this. And that’s truly amazing given the level of Christian influence in our state. In Alabama, over 90 percent of our citizens claim to be Christian. And at the heart of Christianity is a strong emphasis on God’s grace and forgiveness. In fact, my faith tradition asserts that once God forgives our sins, God forgets them. But in Alabama if you commit a crime, even after you pay your debt to society, you still keep paying.
Some have argued that the practice of keeping convicted felons from having their voting rights restored after serving their sentence is politically motivated. Since a significant number of African Americans populate the prison system, keeping them from voting takes votes away from Democrats.
But I fear the root of the problem is far more insidious than that. Richard Snyder, in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Punishment, argues that American culture has embraced a narrow and distorted understanding of God’s wrath. Consequently, our culture has all but abandoned the idea of God’s grace. Instead of grace understood as “unmerited favor,” the usual definition, grace in American culture is “merited.” In other words, there is grace only for the ones who deserve it.
Snyder’s book is important for another reason. In addition to his training in theology, Snyder has worked for two decades in the adult education program at Sing Sing prison in New York. He has seen first hand the effects of a society that uses prison to exact revenge. The prison system ought to be, according to Snyder, part of a process of restoring persons to meaningful lives, not just exacting a societal “pound of flesh.”
Snyder uses the language of “retributive justice,” versus “restorative justice.” If we truly embraced God’s amazing grace revealed in the life of Jesus, Snyder believes, our primary interest would be restoration of people not just retribution. And that certainly should be true for those who have already served their term.
Snyder argues that the refusal to allow felons to regain citizenship after they have served their terms actually contributes to recidivism. After all, what motivation do former inmates have for being good citizens if the state is telling them they are not citizens at all?
In Alabama and a few other places, a cultural theology is at work which is psychologically devastating. To tell someone that once they are a civic sinner, they are always a civic sinner shuts the door to hope forever. And where is the grace in that?
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.