On Election Day this year nearly 5 million Americans will be blocked from participating in the presidential election. The barrier will not be complicated voting machines or butterfly ballots. The barrier will be the law. At least 10 states prohibit convicted felons from voting–even after they have served their full sentence.
The logic here is hard follow. Conviction of a felony and mandatory prison time certainly makes sense. And depriving felons of civic privileges while they are in prison makes sense. But after they have served their sentence and paid their debt to society, why do we continue to punish them?
The practice of denying voting rights in American history is rooted in racism. After the Civil War depriving convicted felons of their voting privileges was aimed at preventing black Americans from voting. And even today, blacks comprise a large percentage of those who have been disenfranchised due to felony convictions. If the intent of the practice is to remove minorities from the voting process, then it’s working pretty well.
Unfortunately the practice of denying voting privileges may actually hinder the rehabilitation of those who break the law. Criminologists agree that the most successful former prisoners are those who rekindle their sense of civic responsibility. In other words as we continue to treat people as criminals we contribute to the likelihood that they will resume criminal activity.
There may be some interesting theology underneath all of this. Richard Snyder, professor of theology and ethics at New York Theological Seminary, believes our culture is in the grip of what he calls a “spirit of punishment.” This spirit shows itself in many ways, but most dramatically in the way we treat prisoners. We “rush to revenge,” as Snyder puts it, seeking only to punish and judge. The spirit of punishment overrules the spirit of redemption.
Snyder concedes there are many factors contributing to this spirit, but believes that one of the main sources is Protestant theology. Christians have traditionally taught that a righteous God condemns sinful behavior. However, they have also taught that the grace of God offers forgiveness for that sin. Snyder believes we have done a thorough job announcing the judgment but an inadequate job of demonstrating the grace.
The result is a society that condemns those who commit crimes but then offers them no path to restoration. By denying convicted felons the right to vote, even after they have served their full term, we say to them there is no forgiveness. It is punishment without grace or hope.
Jesus made only one provocative statement about being in prison. His words are found in a parable he told towards the end of his ministry. He said, “I was in prison and you visited me.”
Obviously, the stark brevity of “you visited me” does not outline a full blown rehabilitation plan. It does seem to suggest, however, that Jesus would have us practice mercy and compassion for those who are imprisoned. That doesn’t mean that we let criminal behavior go unpunished, but it also doesn’t mean that punish them forever.
Russian novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky spent some time in Russian prisons in the 19th century. He came to have a profound understanding of the nature of evil, both as it appears in individuals and in institutions. Reflecting on what he had seen and experienced in prison he wrote once, “The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.” Maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at when said, “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.