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What gets ex-prisoners politically and civically involved?

A sign directs citizens to a voting precinct in Phoenix on Election Day in August. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

In November, Floridians will vote on a constitutional amendment to automatically re-enfranchise citizens with nonviolent records after release from prison. Advocates and opponents are watching the campaign closely as a significant moment in the movement to  give “returning citizens” the right to vote.

In some states, advocates have been winning back the right to vote for those who’ve served time. Since 2016, states as ideologically different as Alabama, California, Louisiana and New York restored voting rights to a variety of citizens, ranging from probationers and parolees to people with felony convictions no longer under correctional supervision. They restored the right by different means, including new laws and gubernatorial executive orders.

In New Jersey and California, advocates continue to work on restoring the right to vote even to the incarcerated. They argue, for instance, that if inmates in Maine and Vermont can vote, removing the right to vote isn’t necessary for public safety.

If Florida restores the vote to ex-prisoners, it will reverse one of the most restrictive policies in the nation – re-enfranchising roughly 1.5 million citizens, including more than one-fifth of the state’s African American population. Florida would then become like most states, including the majority of Southern states, which allow voting rights for most ex-prisoners.

Do ex-prisoners actually vote?

Would re-enfranchisement produce a wave of new voters? Many observers are skeptical. Returning citizens tend to be poor, young and people of color – groups that are less likely to vote in the first place. Moreover, studies suggest that involuntary contact with the justice system – having been incarcerated or questioned by police, for instance – undermines trust in government and, as a result, reduces the likelihood of being involved in politics, especially by voting.

Perhaps those effects can be mitigated. In our recent research on Chicago, we find that returning citizens are more likely to be civically active when they are connected to nonprofits: religious congregations, labor unions, legal aid groups, and the like. Such organizations can reach out and bring them back into the community.

Here’s how we did our research 

We chose Chicago because, as Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson once observed, the city’s patterns “are broadly consistent with trends in crime and incarceration throughout the United States.” As a result, our findings should be valid for other parts of the country as well.

During August and September 2014, the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois fielded an online survey through the firm GFK. Its sample included 1,275 eligible voters from Chicago. We used that survey for our study.

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It asked respondents whether they had been questioned by the police, been on probation or parole, or served time in jail or prison in the last five years. Eleven percent reported being stopped or questioned by police, and 5 percent had been on probation or parole, or in jail or prison.

The survey also asked whether respondents had voted in the 2012 presidential election, or taken part in seven other political activities, such as signing a petition or attending a city council meeting. On the whole, 80 percent said they’d voted. Being questioned by the police didn’t reduce voting. Plus, 73 percent of those who had more serious criminal justice contact claimed to have voted.

More surprisingly, those questioned by the police were a bit more civically active than the others: 49 percent of those who had been questioned signed a petition and 14 percent attended a protest, compared to 38 percent and 10 percent of those who’d had more serious contact with the law – and only 30 percent and 7 percent of those who hadn’t had any contact with the criminal justice system.

When people had ties to nonprofit groups, they got more politically active – in most ways except voting

Many nonprofits work to support returning citizens in regaining the right to vote, access to food stamps and other support, and employment, education, and licensing for such work as selling insurance or cutting hair. The survey asked respondents whether they were involved with community organizations such as religious, labor, ethnic and community-based groups.

Among Chicago residents who had been on probation, parole or served time in jail or prison, we found that being involved with such groups and being politically active were strongly correlated –  including contacting elected officials, signing petitions and volunteering for campaigns. Returning citizens connected to nonprofits were far more involved than returning citizens disconnected from them.

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We corroborated the findings from the survey by looking at what was happening across the city, at the level of police beats. Police beats are the 270 subareas of the 25 police districts the Chicago Police Department patrols. They are a little larger than neighborhoods. In each beat, we measured the number of nonprofit groups; felony conviction rates; and how often residents made non-emergency requests for assistance, attended police-community meetings and voted.

Here’s what we found: If police beats had high rates of individuals with felony convictions and abundant nonprofit organizations, residents were more likely to contact police for non-emergency assistance and attend police-community meetings than they were to do so in beats with similar felony conviction rates but where nonprofits were sparser. That’s consistent with the results of the Chicago survey.

Yet, we found no statistical evidence – either from the survey or community data – that connections to community groups increased returning citizens’ likelihood of voting. We don’t know why.

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Our study cannot confirm that participating in community groups caused returning citizens to get more politically involved; the kinds of people who reach out to such groups might also be the ones more inclined to participate in politics in the first place.

Our findings, however, strengthen the social scientific consensus that involuntary contact with the criminal justice system reduces voting, for individuals and communities. Our results suggest that civic groups may help citizens re-engage with politics after having been incarcerated.

Hannah L. Walker is assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and author of “Mobilized by Injustice: Criminal Justice Contact, Political Participation, and Race” (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

Michael Leo Owens is associate professor of political science at Emory University, a 2012-2014 Public Voices Fellow of The Op-Ed Project and author of “God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in Black America” (University of Chicago Press, 2007).