Charles W. Colson is founder of Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, former prisoners and their families. A former special counsel to President Richard Nixon, he was convicted of an offense related to Watergate and served seven months in a federal prison.
In a heated presidential campaign, politicians have, like clockwork, started hitting each other over who is soft on crime. And here I thought we’d outgrown the Willie Horton era of playing political football with people’s lives.
In Florida, a political action committee supporting Mitt Romney ran an ad last week criticizing Rick Santorum for voting to restore voting rights to ex-offenders who have finished their sentences. The issue popped up again during Monday’s heated Republican debate. I have never endorsed a candidate, but I feel compelled to speak up about this effort to demonize anyone who votes to return civil rights to criminals who have paid their debt to society.
What is the objection to allowing past offenders to vote? Voting does not put anyone in danger. Sound public policy would teach us that if we want to turn ex-offenders into responsible citizens, we must demand of them responsible behavior. And once they demonstrate responsible behavior, what possible justification is there, beyond scoring political points during an election, for stripping them of their civil rights for the rest of their lives?
Restoring voting rights is an important way society can welcome back those who strayed, sometimes seriously, but are now on the right path. It costs taxpayers nothing, but it means a great deal to an ex-offender.
I served time in a federal prison. And while I paid my debt to society in less than a year, it took me 30 years to have my voting rights restored. Maybe I’m not a good example, having been part of a national political scandal. But what about a young person, say, in his early 20s, who is convicted of three minor drug offenses? Once he serves his time, grows up and straightens out his life, should he be denied the right to vote again?
I know politics is a bare-knuckled game, but demonizing an entire class of Americans for electoral gain is wrong.
Consider recent events in Mississippi, where Attorney General Jim Hood (D) has made an effort to overturn the pardons issued by outgoing governor Haley Barbour (R). As Barbour wrote in The Post this week, he recently pardoned 215 offenders, more than 90 percent of whom had been recommended for pardon by the state parole board. The most controversial pardons were given to four murderers and one robber, all of whom had served an average of more than 20 years in prison, had acknowledged responsibility for their crimes and had proved themselves trustworthy.
The power to pardon criminals is inherent in the executive power and is explicit in the U.S. Constitution and in all 50 state constitutions. The sovereign power of clemency has existed from ancient times. It provides a last opportunity for injustice to be righted or for people who have been rehabilitated to be restored as free citizens. I realize that the pardon process can be very difficult for victims and their families, but that power exists not just to correct mistakes but also to forgive.
The political flaps over pardons and voting rights for ex-felons raise the larger issue of how long we will exact invisible punishments on offenders after they have paid their debt to the community. Many offenders are barred from employment in jobs that have nothing to do with their crime. Many more are barred from public housing, grants for tuition aid or even licenses for practicing a trade, such as being a barber.
If we want these ex-offenders to become contributing members of the community, we should not kick the bottom rungs off the ladder they have to climb. Those steps are already difficult.
Making a political controversy over traditional mercies extended to ex-offenders may reap a short-term political gain, but the politicians who do so also make it harder for offenders to get back on their feet. And that definitely does not serve the common good.