Each January, we honor Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy as a civil rights leader. We celebrate how his efforts led to historic legislation prohibiting racial discrimination and guaranteeing voting rights for people of color. But though we have come a long way, we are far from achieving full racial equality. The United States’ criminal justice system continues to disproportionately impact communities of color, and disenfranchisement laws prevent many individuals within these communities from exercising their right to vote.
According to The Sentencing Project, 5.85 million Americans cannot vote due to laws that disenfranchise citizens convicted of felony offenses (Jean Porter, 2016, p.8). Black Americans of voting age are four times more likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population, with one in 13 black adults disenfranchised nationally.
If large segments of the U.S. population cannot participate in its political process, enacted policies will not reflect the needs of all its citizens. Furthermore, restricting voting rights does not deter crime, nor does it provide compensation to victims of crime. In fact, disenfranchising justice-involved individuals is antithetical to the reentry process itself. Being denied the full rights of citizenship can discourage justice-involved individuals from proactively reintegrating into their communities. As The Sentencing Project notes, research has even linked civic participation to lower rates of recidivism (Jean Chung, 2016, p.5).
Restoring the voting rights of justice-involved people is crucial to achieving the racial equality Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned over 50 years ago. Through education, advocacy, and awareness, The Fortune Society has played an important role in the efforts to achieve this goal.
Last September, we traveled to Ohio to conduct a two-day educational initiative about the voting rights of justice-involved people. The state of Ohio permits people on parole to vote, while the state of New York does not. There, disenfranchised Fortune staff and clients on parole encouraged eligible, formerly incarcerated people to vote, and raised awareness about the barriers other justice-involved individuals face to civic engagement and community reentry.
Additionally, the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy (DRCPP) has consistently researched and advocated for policies that end systemic discrimination after prison. Many of these discriminatory practices disproportionately affect black and Latino citizens.
This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, remember the lasting successes of the Civil Rights movement, as well as the work that remains. Racial oppression still exists, and mass incarceration is an unresolved civil rights issue. Through our services and advocacy, we at Fortune will continue working to advance racial equality in the criminal justice system, and achieve the dream Martin Luther King Jr. shared.