Thursday, May 31, 2007

Human rights? Are they humans? With rights? Or just ex-cons?


Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered. Yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. --- Thomas Paine, December 1776

I've made very plain my feelings about the injustice inherent in a punitively-oriented society. By merely focusing on the negative and punishing rule/law breakers, we do not offer enough deterrents or incentive for many people to operate within the system. A successful society is a two-party contract that requires total buy-in. Society leaders (by which I mean government) not only must offer a legal means that is reasonable, but also must provide guidance and direction to how to legally work towards the desired end.

This requires two key things: trust and fulfillment of guaranteed rights.

If this sounds vague and confusing it is because I'm trying to apply a general moral/ethical principle to the rule of law.

Bring it down to a specific case: the right to vote.

This right is an evolving one. Here's a brief civics/American history review in case you forgot or never studied civics/American history:

April 1775---Dawes and Revere warn colonists (including, but not limited to Samuel Adams and John Hancock) that Governor Gage is sending troops to destroy the weapons depot at Concord in order to enforce the Coercive Acts. Thus begins the American Revolution.

July 1775
---After the Olive Branch Petition fails, rebels detail in the "Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of taking up Arms" that they'd rather live free or die (New Hampshire state motto). One year later, the Continental Congress agrees to Virginia delegate Richard Lee's resolution to declare independence from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Livingston and Roger Sherman are designated as the committee to draft the declaration. Everyone agrees Jefferson ought to do it, which he does---in one day.

July 4, 1776---Jefferson's Declaration is officially endorsed.

August 2, 1776
---the majority of the Continenal Congress (55 members) sign the Declaration.

November 15, 1777
---Congress adopts the Articles of Confederation (which establish Congress as the sole authority of the government), pending ratification by the individual states.

June 11, 1780---Massachusetts endorses a constitution that asserts "all men are born free and equal," which includes black slaves. The Supreme Court there abolishes slavery on July 8, 1783.

February 27, 1782---In England, the House of Commons votes against further war in America. This is no help for many tribes of Native Americans, whom the British have liberally used in their war against the rebels. Reprisals agaisnt the tribes continue.

April 1783---War is over.

And thus began the democratic style of governing in the United States of America.

It all came from one major belief:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That, to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed. That, whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.


Although this provides the justification---the right---to rebel, rather than vote, it proffers the concept behind the right to govern by the will of the people.

Of course, back then, the only people considered were white, male, and wealthy landowners. This was true as late as 1842, when the state of the vote was:

...white (except in a few Northern states), male (except in New Jersey, where women voted until 1807), and a landowner (nearly everywhere). In some places, that left more than 85 percent of the adult population out of the political process. Source: History: The Right to Vote by Tod Olson


In 1841, Thomas Dorr, a wealthy Harvard graduate and state legislator, decided this system of restrictive voting rights equaled tyranny. He claimed that this practice did not uphold the US ideals, and it was wrong to deny the poor the right to vote. Dorr was arrested and imprisoned for treason, but his cause lived on. States began removing the requirement of owning land to vote. Rhode Island---Dorr's home state---was the last hold-out, but did ultimately remove the requirement in 1888.

That was not even half the battle, though. By the time the 20th century dawned, the polls were still only populated by white, male voters over 21 years old.

Women had been trying to get the vote since at least 1848, but unfortunately the majority of their fellow citizens---men and women alike---believed that women were consituitionally (no pun intended) incapable of handling voting and politics. Apparently it would overwhelm our delicate sensibilities. Unlike, you know, the gentle and delicate task of childbirth. Although women were trusted to have sufficient intellect to raise and teach children---including these self-same men who claimed women were unfit---they were largely considered emotional rather than thinking creatures, therefore unable to muster enough neural power to select a candidate. (Yes, that is extreme sarcasm.)

Nevertheless, Washington state gave women the vote in 1910; California followed in 1911; Kansas, Oregon, and Arizona did so in 1912. Progress halted, though.

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson suffered poor public opinion when the press detailed the conditions jailed suffragettes faced. In 1919, with his backing, the suffrage amendment to the Constituition passed the Senate, and passed the House in 1920. The two-thirds majority of states ratified the 19th Amendment in August 1920, giving women the right to vote.

However, voters were still white.

You're confused, I know. 14 comes before 19, thus you are thinking surely the 14th Amendment---which gave black people the right to vote in 1868---was ratified prior to the 19th Amendment. Technical and actual sometimes contain a gulf between them.

Many Southern states were using complicated procedures and loopholes to prevent black people from voting. Requirements for blacks and whites were different, and unequal.

It took President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to open up the vote fairly to all.

Except...it still isn't. Despite two constituitional amendments, multiple court cases, and an Act, the vote is still not open fairly to all.

The rationalization is there: it's open, it's just up to you.

I'm sure this is the same logic Mississippi pollsters applied when justifying literacy tests and complicated constituitional quizzes as a requirement for blacks to vote.

The complication arises when one loses one's legal right to vote, such as when one is convicted of a crime and jailed. In Texas, thanks to George W. Bush, when offenders have completed served time and are released, they regain eligibility to vote. Unfortunately, the vast majority are unaware of this.

During the 80th Legislature, Dutton and Guillen authored and presented HB770, which provided for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide notice to certain persons of the right to vote, upon their release from prison.

Brief overview of HB 770:

HB 770 by Dutton, Relating to requiring the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide notice to certain persons of the right to vote.

In 1997, then-Governor George Bush signed a state bill that restored voter eligibility to offenders immediately upon the completion of their sentence. Despite this act, those who have served their time are often unaware of their eligibility to vote and may be deterred from voting out of fear that violating voting regulations could land them back in prison – as has happened in other states.

Ensuring that individuals who are returning to the community are able and willing to participate in civic life can point them in the right direction by connecting them with society and encouraging law-abiding behavior.

What would HB 770 do?

· Requires the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to distribute to each inmate, parolee, or probationer released from custody or supervision (meaning individuals who no longer have to report to probation or parole and have entirely completed their sentence) a written notice educating that person that if they meet all voting requirements, they can register to vote. This notice is accompanied by an official voter registration application form.

Of course...why not? What a good idea. We have frequently bemoaned the low voter turnout, and tried to think of ways to increase voters and encourage voting. Here we have a captive audience (no pun intended) who may very well have a vested interest in voting.

Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, wrote:

Last year, 53,5777 individuals were discharged from state prison, state jails, and parole, according to statistics from the Department of Criminal Justice. Upon leaving supervision, these individuals regained certain rights, including the right to vote. House Bill 770 would facilitate these individual's reintegration into civil society.

People must fully integrate into society in order to succeed. The tools for success go beyond finding and keeping employment or finding housing. Success also derives from having a healthy mindset, which leads to self-determination and a sense of worth. Civic participation through voting is a crucial foundation for this success.

Ensuring that ex-offenders who return to society are fully equipped to reenter civic life means that we must actively inform them of their right to vote. Voting is a critical tool of successful democracy, and by allowing ex-offenders to participate in government, we can encourage them to live responsible lives and work with the system, not against it.

THOSE WHO HAVE SERVED THEIR TIME AND ARE ELIGIBLE TO VOTE FAIL TO DO SO DUE TO APPREHENSION, FEAR AND MISINFORMATION.

...

Ex-offenders may also fail to vote due to an indifference to civic life which results from systematic social exclusion. Individuals who are labeled as criminals, sequestered from society, and deprived of civil liberties are sent a message that they are not supposed to be part of government and civil society. This can lead to them blaming government or society for their misfortunes instead of taking responsibility for their actions.

H.B. 770 BY CHAIRMAN DUTTON WOULD ENCOURAGE THOSE WHO HAVE SERVED THEIR TIME TO TAKE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY AND PARTICIPATE IN CIVIC LIFE. (Read the entire testimony at TCJC.)


Although the Ayes had it, Governor Rick Perry vetoed it.

With no objection, and support for this across parties, one wonders what would prompt Perry to veto such a positive and proactive initiative, that simply supports a bill that already passed a decade ago.

Despite Perry's misinformed and incorrect as well as logically insupportable justification for his veto, the bottom line is that there is no good reason.

Scott Henson writes movingly about the unseemliness of Governor Perry's veto.

Released ex-offenders have served their time. They now have resumed their role as citizens within society. They have regained their freedom and their right to vote.

Let loose of prejudice and the drive to continue and extend punishment through hiding their regained rights and perpetuating bias against their "ability" to vote.

Just as skin color, gender, and socioeconmoic status have been stripped away as reasons to withhold the right to be an active participant in civic life through voting, so has past offense.

Released ex-offenders receive an orientation as they depart the criminal justice system. Add in one more piece of paper and a voter registration card.

Or not...if you are Governor Rick Perry of Texas.

Perry, bad choice. What are you afraid of, that all ex-cons might be democrats?

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

8 comments:

thailandchani said...

Needless to say, I believe we all make mistakes and it's important to let bygones be bygones. If someone has committed a crime and gone to prison as a result, it shouldn't keep following him around like an angry pitbull.

The macho society is beginning to feed on itself.


Peace,


~Chani

Christine said...

Excellent point here, Julie. There is no good reason at all that ex-offenders shouldn't vote. They should! Of course, it seems so logical and smart. Hmmm. . Guess Perry is neither of these. Jeez.

Oh, and are you sure you aren't actually a historian? My American history prof hubby would swoon over your understanding of, well, American history!

slouching mom said...

Impressive, Julie. Christine is right. You're something of a historian! You do wear so many hats.

Perry. What can one say.

Sigh.

Julie Pippert said...

Of course I am an historian! By hobby only though. :)

But seriously, you guys know I had to look up a lot of this info to refresh my memory and get details (such as dates) correct. I do not walk around with these facts on the tip of my tongue.

My gosh, tonight I'm siting there chatting with friends and blank of my friend's last name and middle kids names! LOL

**

Chani, amen, no bulldogs yapping around.

Except.

Child molestors. I am very not nice, very yapping at the heels bulldog about that. Unfair? Uncool? Maybe. We all have flaws. ;)

***

Christine, Perry is so not logical or smart. I'm afraid I can't help but wonder WTF as far as him getting re-elected. And again.

Tell your hubby to feel free to weigh in. :)

***

SM, What can one say about Perry? Oh a LOT, I'm afraid. None of it in line with my desire to be kind, diplomatic, and PG rated. ;) Sometimes I remember I live in the Republic and I can't help but...well, yeah, sigh.

Lawyer Mama said...

I think I love you, Julie.

Unfortunately, ex-cons have no voting power to ensure that they regain their voting power. Therein lies the Catch 22.

I think the Declaration of Independence is one of the most amazin documents ever written. Can you imagine what focus groups would do to it now?

Jenn said...

I stumble here; I'm a forgiver--for most anything; except crimes against children...then I'm someone else, and I don't like that machete wielding vigilante very much, but I just can't get her to shut up.

Excellent post...thought provoking.

K said...

Really interesting. I did not know that any such legislation existed.

"APPREHENSION, FEAR AND MISINFORMATION." The reasons that keep most people stuck where they are.

Julie Pippert said...

K, you do not read legislative watch? Lawyer Mama, tell me I am not alonein this...

LOL

Actually, in Texas, ex-cons DO have the right to vote, as of 1997 courtesy of W.

They just do not know it, and many do not understand the right. Thus, they are afraid and many have heard they do NOT have the right. I tis confusing because it varies by state. In fact, right now a man in Arizona is facing 5 years of jail for voting in 2004, when he thought he could, but couldn't.

Jenn I am the same way about the same crime.

LawyerMama, let's ditch the men and kids and run away together to BlogHer. ;)