MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, MD: It is time for prison reform. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to our Constitution were enacted to provide freedom, due process and voting rights to African Americans after the Civil War. Unfortunately, these have not prevented the treatment of many people of all ethnicity as slaves or indentured servants in the United State.
This is not an exaggeration, the 13th Amendment clearly abolishes slavery and indentured servitude except for people convicted of crimes. It also states that Congress would have the power to enact legislation to enforce this amendment.
This exception has been used by states to suspend almost all civil rights for convicted felons and others.
Most also restrict or postpone full citizenry rights for felons after they serve their terms of incarceration. Only two, Maine and Vermont restore all rights to felons after serving their sentence. Washington restores voting rights to convicts after serving their sentence even if they have not paid fines and retributions.
Kentucky allows selected felons to receive instruction and assistance in restoring their voting rights. Florida and Iowa gave voting rights to felons but later reversed executive orders to that effect.
6.1 million disenfranchised as of 2016
It is estimated that 6.1 million American citizens were disenfranchised because of felony convictions as of 2016. This number has increased significantly since 1976 when there were 1.7 million. Voting age people that cannot vote because of having been convicted varies from 0% in Maine and Vermont to more than 7% in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Since most convicts are people of color, whether purposely or not, these laws have served to curtail their vote.
Jail time influences the financial status of this population.
Even when ex-convicts become eligible to work, finding work is difficult. There are up to 14 million ex-convicts in our population (90% male) and increasing fast due to mandatory minimum sentences and our obsession with incarceration, even for non-violent crimes. While there are 6.1 million jobs available in our economy, as reported recently, many find it difficult to find work.
Currently, about 1% of our population is incarcerated, that is the highest of all industrialized countries.
We have all seen footage of prisoners being abused, harmed and even killed by guards. The tacit acceptance of some prison systems of inmate control has also caused many to be hurt or killed. An infamous sheriff in Arizona kept inmates in tents in over 100-degree heat and fed them rotten food to save money.
Many have been subject to solitary confinement for months and even years. These and other examples reinforce the idea that some inmates are treated similarly to slaves or indented servants with no legal repercussions for the culprits.
Jail: Reformation or Punishment
Another issue is whether our prisons are intended solely as places of punishment or also as a place for reformation. Some systems in more progressive states teach new skills to inmates, while others only serve as storage warehouses. Relevant training and skill reinforcement could go a long way in erasing the bias in employment against ex-convicts.
There is a big clamor today for prison reform and there are some positive signs from both sides that change is in the offing. However, some progressives believe that all efforts today in Congress do not go far enough. People in the middle keep on preaching patience and that it is better to get some changes than nothing at all.
Perhaps this is a chance for President Trump to make some points with the Democrats.
While almost any change that will break this cycle of more and more people being disenfranchised is good for our society, a bigger philosophical issue remains.
That is whether the US should join the rest of first world countries and turn to a more logical justice system or continue our practice of slavery and indentured servitude for prison inmates.
Abolishing the Death Penalty in the US
Most industrialized countries have abolished the death penalty with the exception of the US, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. China does not reveal numbers of people executed. All industrialized countries except for the US, do not issue life sentences for other than multiple deaths and horrible acts. Most non-violent or minimally violent crimes are handled with short sentences or parole.
Could this be one of the reasons that violent crime rate and crime, in general, is at a lower rate in these other countries than in the US?
Logically it seems that our justice system regarding incarceration and reformation is broken. It is causing dire harm to our society. Maybe we should follow the example of other industrialized countries that have proven that harsh and massive incarceration is not the answer.
About the Author:
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, believes that the time for prison reform is now. He is in Twitter (@chibcharus), Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook (Mario Salazar).