The tinderbox of failed economic policies, stifled educational opportunity and strained community relationships with law enforcement was set ablaze in Baltimore this summer with the death of Freddie Gray. Just 30 miles to the south, residents in Montgomery County sifted through a range of emotions and wondered how this could happen in our state, a place that prides itself on diversity and opportunity. Such incidents have thrust a set of very difficult issues into the public discourse, issues that are often beneath the surface but that serve as a pretext for our daily interactions with one another.
Thanks to the work of many of my colleagues — young leaders such as delegates Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore) and Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s) — we in the legislature took a critical step toward reforming our broken criminal justice system by passing a bill that would restore the rights of convicted felons to vote after being released from prison, instead of waiting for the completion of parole or probation. Understanding that there is no silver bullet to solve the problems that ail our criminal justice system, we can help lay a foundation upon which all Marylanders have the opportunity to live to their fullest potential. This can be accomplished by decriminalizing some nonviolent offenses, such as drug offenses, providing economic opportunities for those with criminal records and enabling voting — the opportunity to participate in the most fundamental practice of representative democracy.
These aren’t partisan ideas. Across the country, lawmakers from President Obama to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) agree that we need new approaches to criminal justice reform. This past legislative session we in Maryland took an innovative and inspired step in voter enfranchisement.
Soon after passage of this landmark bill, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed it, delaying the right to vote for 40,000 Maryland taxpayers.
The reality is that the vast majority of people in Maryland’s correctional facilities will return to our communities. When prisoners are released, the best chance they have at success is through substantive and empowering participation in their neighborhoods. There is no greater pathway to equality and fairness than through civic participation and access to the ballot box. The ability to cast that precious vote is how we create real solutions to deal with our most pressing issues. We should never underestimate the power of the franchise to change the destiny of our communities for the better.
Sadly, Hogan’s veto, unless it is overturned by the legislature in the 2016 session, will continue to deny this right to tens of thousands of our former inmates who are looking to make the best of their second chance.
Maryland can and must do better.
The writer, a Democrat, represents Silver Spring and Takoma Park in the Maryland House of Delegates.