Courting the Ex-Offender Vote

There was a time when no politician would go public with an agenda of criminal justice reform. Appearing soft on crime was a sure route to a campaign’s crash and burn.

But times have changed. Now, about the only thing Republicans and Democrats agree upon is that the a system that relied upon longer prison sentences and more jail cells is just not working, on any level. This is all very good news for families decimated by loved ones warehoused for sadistically long sentences, communities ravaged by crime, and society wasting tens of billions of dollars on an antiquated approach that serves no one’s interests.

So why aren’t more politicians running on a criminal justice reform platform? Why aren’t campaigns courting the ex-offender vote?

Some 70 million Americans have some kind of a record (full disclosure: I served two years in a federal prison for fraud), and as of 2008, all but approximately five million of them have the right to vote (not counting those too young to vote). That means that there’s a bloc of tens of millions of potential voters to whom virtually no candidate or party is paying attention. Sure, many of these folks have never registered to vote, but Hillary Clinton’s and Al Gore’s presidential campaign losses could have easily gone the other way by the most modest of help from the formerly incarcerated.

It’s true that marketing any product or service to this population isn’t easy; as a group, it’s fair to say this population would prefer to stay below the radar.

But the same could be said at one time of the LGBTQ community, or African-Americans, or even women. They were all marginalized relative to their economic value (“Women buy what their husbands tell them to buy,” was once the accepted wisdom) and political power, until they had their “moment,” and they emerged as formidably viable. It took a movement to galvanize the latent force these populations could wield. And sometimes that movement grew loud and violent. Change comes hard.

I believe that there are nascent murmurings of a movement relative to the vast population of folks with records. I feel the difference in cultural attitudes since being released from prison twelve years ago. I see compelling leaders building awareness and progressive companies providing second-chance opportunities. And I know men and women whose unwavering spirit while in and out of prison is inspiring many to understand the abject waste of human potential when caged year after year.

Attitudes now change with stunning velocity. The national zeitgeist is warming to a more just — and effective — criminal justice system. Politicians that ignore the millions of men and women (along with their friends and family) who have done time do so at their own peril. Like every movement, some will live in the past and miss an historic opportunity to engage with people whose time has come, and whose voice is growing ever louder. But like many employers who have come to appreciate the loyalty shown by the returning citizens they’ve hired, politicians who embrace this population will be rewarded for their principled stand.

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