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Second chances in the sunshine state: Enfranchising felons

by Aaron Betancourt

Florida is currently one of four states, including Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia, where convicted felons accused of non-violent crimes are not granted their voting rights after serving time in prison, parole or probation.

Depending on the charge, convicted felons must wait anywhere between five to seven years upon release before applying to the Executive Clemency Board for restoration of this right. After submitting their application, if a felon is found eligible, they are assigned to examiners that decide if their voting rights will be restored.

Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, will be on the voting ballot on Nov. 6, 2018. This will ultimately determine whether or not the amendment will automatically restore the voting rights of convicted felons.

This is a very polarizing issue. Some may see felons as societal delinquents and are in agreement with revoking their civil right to vote. In their eyes, the felons must suffer the consequences of their actions. I look at it from a different perspective. Everyone goes through their highs and lows. Some people overcome their lows gracefully and others succumb to it. We’ve all made mistakes and deserve a second chance. If a drug dealer who was selling to financially support his family serves time in prison once, then he should be given another shot. He shouldn’t be stripped of his basic American right because of the skeletons in his closet. We all have dark moments in our past.

This country thrives on being a democracy. Therefore, every citizen should have a say in our political affairs. According to a 2016 report from The Sentencing Project, Florida has 1,686,318 voters disenfranchised due to felonies. That’s a large percentage of people who can make a difference in polling results. Their memories of prison will stay with them for the rest of their lives and as a permanent part of their record. Their stained conscience is hard enough, prohibiting them to vote just adds fuel to the fire.

However, the slate should not be wiped clean for repeated offenders. If a convict commits the same or various type of crimes and is repeatedly in and out of prison there should be some penalties, one of them being voting restrictions. Those who have been released from prison after three times should not have a voice in our democracy for their continuous detrimental behavior to society.

Although I mentioned earlier that every citizen should have the right to vote, those repeated offenders should suffer the consequences for disrupting society. The “three strikes you’re out” rule. Going to prison once should be enough to make someone want to change and turn their lives around.

Everyone has a background story. A handful of felons have a reason why they committed their crimes. Some come from rough neighborhoods, volatile families or became involved with the wrong crowd and it’s unfortunate. But they get a reality check when they are robbed of their freedom and put in prison. In prison they’re nothing more than a number and an “inmate.” Their personalities don’t matter and it’s almost like they’re unhuman.

When they are released, they are being welcomed into the world as new and improved people. If they’re getting a second opportunity at being a law-abiding citizen then it should be an all inclusive package. If they’re going to work and pay rent, their vote should matter as much as their employers or neighbors.   

We should all think about the lowest point of our lives or something we’ve done and regret and wonder what it would feel like to be penalized for the rest of our lives. Most of us would be left to scorn if one bad decisions cost us one of our basic rights. Simply being a former prisoner does not turn someone into the devil.

They are not the worst people in the world and if they were granted release they are most likely no longer a threat to society. In a time when we are more politically divided than ever, we need all the votes we can get.

Aaron Betancourt can be reached at aaron.betancourt@spartans.ut.edu

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