A Second Chance in Kentucky

On Friday, I registered to vote after more than a decade in limbo.

Two people lean over a voting station in a voting hall in Louisville, Kentucky.
Residents cast votes at St. Paul Methodist Church November 5, 2019 in Louisville, Kentucky. Gov. Matt Bevin, a strong ally of President Donald Trump, faces a tough reelection bid against Democrat Andy Beshear, the state’s attorney general. Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images.

Last Thursday, three days after taking office, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear restored the right to vote to more than 140,000 people who had served their sentences for nonviolent offenses.

With the stroke of a pen, he opened a door to people who have been held accountable for a crime, and now seek to lead law-abiding and productive lives. The next day, with the click of a button, I walked through it.

In less than five minutes online, I was registered to vote. The ease of the process was surprising to me, as I had spent most of the last decade sending reams of paper to the governor’s office to apply for a restoration of my voting rights. Untold voicemails left with the Department of Corrections to find out if it had been granted, or denied, or even looked at. In the course of that decade, I never received an answer. Never a no. Never a yes. Simply silence.

Holding people accountable for harm that they cause is important. Indeed, I view my own arrest and involvement with the legal system as something that saved my life in so many ways. The freest I ever felt was handcuffed in an interrogation room. Equally as important as holding people accountable is knowing when to stop punishing them. Punishment—when it becomes divorced from notions of redemption, rehabilitation, and proportionality—becomes little more than a poison that diminishes us all.

Clemency is one antidote to that poison, one that is too often a stranger to our political processes. Former Gov. Matt Bevin issued more than 400 pardons and commutations in his final days, some of which have sparked outrage from both Republicans and Democrats. While some of those reactions may be warranted, others are driven by a sense that violent criminals should be shown no mercy. We tend to forget, after decades of uniquely harsh carceral policies, that prison is meant to be rehabilitative, not simply punitive. People are capable of change, even if their past contains horrible crimes. Bevin’s pardons are in line with empirical research showing that people tend to age out of crime, that longer sentences have no deterrent effect, and that the certainty of punishment matters far more than its severity. Therefore, a lengthier incarceration often serves no further purpose beyond vengeance.

However, Bevin’s idea of clemency stopped short of civic participation. He revoked voting rights for former felons shortly after taking office in 2015. Beshear’s order restored those rights and allowed those who had been permanently excluded to finally have a say. This is another form of executive clemency. In signaling his intention to sign the order, Beshear observed, ”They have done their time. They want to be productive members of our society.”

One might ask why the ability to vote matters, in an era where many people don’t even bother. My experiences have taught me that the ability to vote matters in ways that the act itself does not. Inclusion represents something that speaks the soul of our democratic aspirations: that you have a voice, and that it counts.

I spent many years disinterested in politics—and by extension, what was happening in my community—not because I didn’t care, but because it hurt too much to do so. I dreaded election days, for they came with the well-meaning “Did you vote yet?” questions from people I would encounter. In recent years, I began bluntly explaining to the canvassers and the tattooed baristas and the smiling clerk at the post office I had been convicted of a felony and could not vote. Cynicism was the salve with which I used to dress my wounds.

Still, I was more fortunate than many others. I had parents who stood by me and could afford legal counsel. Rather than prison, I went to law school. My goal was to become a public defender, but I also had the opportunity to pursue a project on voting rights. That opportunity resulted in the publication of a research article that I co-authored, which demonstrates that states with permanent disenfranchisement schemes experience an approximately 10 percent higher rate of re-arrest for those leaving its prisons. In other words, there is reason to believe that the practice could create more harm in our communities. While we want people to pay their debts, making those debts impossible to pay is a practice we engage in at our own peril.

Beshear’s executive order is unquestionably a step in the right direction. It operates automatically, and is both prospective and retroactive. It also instructs the state to provide information to people affected, and for provides a mechanism to request verification from the Department of Corrections. But while this is a step in the right direction, it is only a step: Beshear’s order restored voting rights to a minority of people who are disenfranchised in Kentucky. That same inscrutable process that I faced to rejoin the franchise remains intact for the approximately 172,000 people convicted of violent offenses or who are under lengthy terms of supervision, but nevertheless continue to live, work, raise families, and worship in their communities. What is true for me is true for them, as well: They, too, “want to be productive members of our society.”

To the extent that we invest in the success of people returning home from prison, we all succeed. Indeed, “they” are not “they” at all, but our neighbors, our co-workers, and our friends. They are us.

In Kentucky, truly ending the practice of disenfranchisement will require a state constitutional amendment. Otherwise a later administration can simply rescind the executive order, as Bevin did in 2015. Indeed, conservatives in the Kentucky General Assembly are already signaling their displeasure with Beshear’s actions. Kentucky Senate leadership has opposed any such restoration absent a waiting period to demonstrate that people can abide by the law, but if disenfranchisement creates more crime, such waiting periods make little sense from a policy standpoint. Additionally, attempts to pass a constitutional amendment with broad carveouts similar to Beshear’s order will—rather than repudiate the logic of disenfranchisement—entrench it.

Organizers and directly impacted advocates across the state have built strong coalitions supporting restoration of voting rights for all, which helped propel Beshear into office, and his executive order is undoubtedly reflective of that fact. It is my hope that the momentum that has been generated can be built upon, restore the franchise to all our neighbors, and give life to the values at the heart of our democracy.

Whatever comes next for Kentucky, at least I can now do something about it.

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