Beshear’s outgoing gift

Christmas came early this year for Matt Bevin, when outgoing Governor Steve Beshear signed the executive order restoring voting rights to convicted felons. Bevin campaigned on this issue and his initial response indicates he intends to support the order to some degree. So as Bevin moves into the Governor’s Mansion next week, he will have an issue resolved that otherwise would have him at odds with many Republicans in the state House and Senate, all of whom he will desperately need on his side as he embarks on an aggressive agenda.

As well, Governor Beshear should be commended for doing the right thing. While people opposed to restoring voting rights like to believe this is a way for Democrats to increase their voter rolls, the truth is that Beshear waited until the least political moment to make this important change — after any election that would benefit him, his son, Attorney General Andy Beshear, or Democrats, minimizing any electoral impact. Oh, and it is the right thing to do.

And while this is a national issue, it is particularly important for Kentucky, which was one of only four states to completely disenfranchise its citizens for life after a felony conviction (unless provided special exemption by the governor). So, for instance if a young man or woman is arrested for selling marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school, steals $500, shoplifts or trespasses, they lose their voting rights forever.

Nobody would argue that these crimes should not be met without serious consequence, but the consequences should end with time served, probation and restitution. In reality, the penalties will be lifelong anyway, as felons will always carry the burden of their actions and face a number of obstacles when it comes to employment and housing opportunities, among other societal hurdles.

In Kentucky, the executive order immediately restores the voting rights of 140,000 Kentuckians, with another 30,000 expected in coming years. If this seems like an issue that affects only a small segment of the population, consider the black vote in Kentucky alone, where 22 percent of potential voters are disenfranchised. Nationally, one out of every thirteen (7.7 percent) African Americans is disenfranchised, which exemplifies the impact of Kentucky’s draconian laws. Furthermore, the true crime is that, overall, black felons are disenfranchised at a rate four times greater than non-black felons (1.8 percent); which also points to the larger racial problems within our justice system.

Exacerbating the problems facing felons who have completed their prison sentences are the continuing impediments to reengaging in society. While Governor Beshear has taken strides in the past to break these unduly burdensome requirements to restore one’s voting rights — most notably parole fees — in addition to his recent executive order, Kentucky and the nation need to do more to open voting booths to felons.

One of the problematic restrictions that remains (even after the executive order) is that a felon must not have any pending charges or arrests in order to vote. This sounds reasonable, but, as mentioned earlier, ex-prisoners face untold difficulties to rejoining the workforce. As well, one major issue currently facing our justice system is the perpetual cycle of offenders who cannot afford various court fines, fees, or court-ordered payments, like child-support. Sometimes these fees are for simply appearing in court or paying for a public defender (which is supposed to be provided by the state for free but in recent years has begun to carry a fee). If ex-convicts are unable to pay these fees, or gain employment to be able to afford those fees, they are facing further jail time, and continue to be barred from voting.

There should be punishment and retribution for crimes committed, but it should not be a self-perpetuating, vicious cycle that turns every felony into a life sentence. And voting should not be part of punitive action for crimes that are completely unrelated to voting or elections — like a bonus penalty because you’re a felon. The justice system needs to focus on appropriate penalty and rehabilitation. A lifetime ban on felons from voting is an implicit admission that the rehabilitation system does not work. If criminals should be punished longer, they should be sentenced longer, but they should not be written off forever.

Governor Beshear put it perfectly when he announced his executive action, saying, “Research shows that ex-felons who vote are less likely to commit new crimes and return to prison. That is because if you vote you tend to be more engaged in society. You tend to have more respect for its laws and the common good.”