Corwin Knight is founder of the Hope Foundation Reentry Network.
As a returning citizen, I try to help my brothers and sisters affected by mass incarceration. This is why I support the Restore the Vote Amendment Act of 2019, legislation sponsored by D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) to expand voting rights to incarcerated District residents with felony convictions.
The change would align the District with Maine, Vermont and Puerto Rico as jurisdictions whose residents never lose their right to vote, even when they are incarcerated for serious felony offenses.
This legislation was recommended by the District’s Commission on Re-Entry and Returning Citizen Affairs, on which I serve. Disenfranchising people in prison compromises public safety because 95 percent of the people in prison will return home one day.
I and other commissioners are focused on expanding rights for every justice-involved District resident. Reentry is a difficult process, but residents who have strong connections to the community are likely to be successful.
I should know. I am one of them.
After serving time in a federal prison, I returned home with only two outfits — including my prison sweatsuit — and an air mattress. Following my release from prison, I experienced several job rejections and other challenges. But I never gave up. I work every day to help other brothers and sisters returning home, and now I’m the founder of a nonprofit organization and have started small businesses.
In addition to basic supports, engagement in the political process provides an avenue for engagement in the broader community. In fact, in visits with the District’s incarcerated residents, I hear diverse opinions as complex as in the outside world.
District residents should be proud that policymakers and leaders are taking steps to expand voting rights. I hope we can enact the “District Model” so thousands of the city’s residents can vote. The District should show other jurisdictions it can be done. At least five states — Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New Mexico — introduced similar legislation this year.
This nation was founded on contradictions: Women weren’t permitted to vote — neither were most African Americans or poor residents. Over time, popular support for expanding rights resulted in enfranchising all of those groups, and we dismiss their prior exclusion from democracy as history.
Now is the time to remedy the exclusion of the last remaining group of citizens who are denied the right to vote. We should start this movement right here in the District and seek to join Maine, Vermont and Puerto Rico. This would represent a healthy beginning to expanding democracy and enhancing community safety.
In the meantime, I will continue to work with the District’s incarcerated residents in support of their reentry and well-being.
My support and assistance are what I can offer to welcome them home and help them to not return to prison. Now, it is time for D.C.’s elected leaders to do their part. Unlock the vote for all incarcerated District residents and pass the Restore the Vote Amendment Act of 2019.