Politicians Capitalize on the Felon Platform

Anti-recidivism programs, restoration of voting rights to felons and other assistance activities for ex-cons are rapidly making their way onto the national stage as President Bush and the Democratic presidential candidates offer up ideas on ways to help newly released prisoners.

Bush addressed the topic in his State of the Union address, while Democratic candidates, including John Kerry, John Edwards and Howard Dean, have expressed support for returning the right to vote to ex-inmates.

In the State of the Union, Bush called for a $300 million program to help released prisoners reintegrate into society. The money would be spent on job retraining, transitional housing and mentoring services from religious and secular organizations.

"We know from long experience that if [released prisoners] can't find work or a home or help, they are much more likely to commit more crimes and return to prison," Bush said.

Tough sentencing laws such as mandatory minimums and three-strikes rules have increased the number of prisoners locked up in the last 10 years. This year alone, 600,000 prisoners will be released back into society.

Corinne Carey, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (search), said the sheer number of prisoners facing impending release is motivating the discussion.

"I was pleasantly surprised to see Bush mention it in the State of the Union," Carey said.

Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship (search), said that two out of three ex-prisoners return to crime after their release. He said proposals to deal with this problem, such as the one in Bush's speech, will likely resonate with voters because of their interest in public safety.

"There needs to be a formal point at which they finish the sentence and are welcomed back to the community," Nolan said.

Nolan said a number of relatively small but very practical measures can be taken to help ease prisoners' re-entry into society: Ex-cons should be allowed to apply for state-issued identification before they leave prison; many prisoners ill or on prescription medication should be allowed to apply for health care while still in prison; and a mentoring system, perhaps through local churches, should be established.

Carey added that the ban on felons receiving welfare money and public funds for education should be lifted so that they can truly have a fresh start.

"The things that Bush said in his speech were so striking in terms of America being the land of second chance. There couldn’t be a more 180-degree turn in federal policy. We hope that he really believes that," she said.

The restoration of voting rights, however, has become the real hot-button issue.

"There is a gathering movement to restore voting rights for felons culminating over the last maybe eight to nine years," said Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (search).

Thirty-three states disenfranchise felons who are on parole and eight states deny felons the right to vote for life, Kirsanow said. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, do not restrict felons' rights to vote.

It is important to restore voting rights because they are one element of citizenship and would show ex-cons that they are now once again accepted by society, said Ryan King, research associate at The Sentencing Project (search).

But some quarters have suggested that certain groups are seeking to restore voting rights because felons are likely to lean Democratic and be a key margin in tight races. A study by sociologists Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota and Jeff Manza of Northwestern University shows that felons would vote for Democrats about 70 percent of the time.

"You can't help but notice a tilt toward the political benefits that would help Democrats," Kirsanow said. "There are clearly elements within the movement for whom that is the overriding concern, but there are a number of very well-meaning people involved."

"If you look at the rhetoric of some of the press releases of people supporting it, it is obvious that they think it will be a boon for the Democrats," Nolan said. "I hope we are not at the point where just because one group has partisan motives," the initiative is dismissed out of hand.

Felons in Florida are currently suing for the right to vote and their attorney insists the case, which the Court of Appeals sent back to trial in December, has nothing to do with the disputed 2000 presidential election or partisan politics.

"Our concern is about democratic inclusion. We have no interest in how our clients would vote," said Jessie Allen, lead counsel in Johnson v. Bush (search) and a lawyer with New York University's Brennan Center for Justice (search).

King said he does not believe the recent focus on voting rights and other forms of re-integrating former prisoners is a matter of politics.

"A lot of the problems associated with felons leaving prison are associated with high recidivism. Ultimately for both [Democrats and Republicans] it's not a political, it's really a very common sense issue in terms of public safety," he said.