The history of our nation is fraught with battles over its people’s rights, the right to vote being one of the foremost among them. The right to vote is linked to many other significant rights and principles, such as that of equality and justice. It should be denied to no eligible citizens, including to those who have infringed on the rights of others. Prisoners should be allowed the right to vote because this right is crucial to our classification as a democracy, the primary argument denying prisoners this right is based on a gross over-generalization, and prisoners’ voices matter.
The right to vote defines our nation as a democracy and should be afforded to all citizens. The denial of this right to any citizen, prisoners included, can lead to dangerous slippery slope consequences. We do not deny prisoners the right to free speech or religion, nor do we deny them the right to equal justice. We should restrict only the rights that in our imperfect justice system is necessary to ensure a just and functional democracy. If we take from a citizen the right to have his or her voice heard without harm to any other, what other infringements can we justify?
The primary argument against allowing prisoners the right to vote – that when one infringes on the right of another, he or she foregoes his or her own rights – is based on a gross generalization. This argument fails to take into account the significant number of prisoners who are incarcerated because of minor crimes or crimes that are mala prohibita – wrong not in itself but because it is prohibited by law. Drug crimes are a prime example; few would argue that a marijuana dealer should be afforded the same treatment as a serial killer.
Finally, prisoners’ voices matter. Prisoners’ voices are essential to the advancement of our criminal justice system. It can make possible a system that is based on rehabilitation and reintegration instead of one based on retribution. A significant fraction of prisoners are racial minorities or were financially disenfranchised prior to their incarceration. Racial profiling is rampant in our system today, and the voices of our nation’s poor need to be heard to ensure a more honest distribution of wealth. Denying prisoners the right to vote marginalizes whole segments of the population that are over-represented in our prison cells.
Prisoners should have the right to vote because this right is fundamental to a democracy, people are incarcerated for vastly different circumstances that undermine a generalized approach, and every citizen’s voice matters. We must stick by these principles or we fail ourselves and reject our own rights.
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