MU Law Professor Weighs in on Voting Rights for Ex-Offenders

Feb 25, 2014

prison cell
Credit mikecogh / Flickr

  Advocates for felons’ rights recently gained significant support from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder asked states to repeal laws prohibiting convicted felons from voting after serving their prison sentences. University of Missouri Law Professor S. David Mitchell said many of the states’ current voting restrictions on felons contradict the goal for these individuals once they are released from prison.

“But if you think about that, that is anti-what we sort of want from our prisoners,” Mitchell said. “We want them to become engaged. And to say to them, “No, don’t be politically active,” seems to me to undermine the very thing we want prisoners to do, which is to rehabilitate folks to become law-abiding, participating citizens.”

Mitchell said the one exception would be for individuals who committed electoral crimes. Mitchell also said by disenfranchising ex-offenders, society is restricting their ability to change some of the other obstacles they face when they get out of prison, such as employment barriers.

“A huge issue with respect to ex-offenders is having them gainfully and legally employed,” Mitchell said. “If you can’t earn an income and you can’t support your family, then you are more likely to return to the underground economy and therefore recidivate.”

  According to Mitchell, the awareness seems to be increasing for rights of ex-offenders. The implementation of these rights to help ease the transition from prison back into society is another story, in part due to the struggling economy.

“When you’re in difficult economic times, people decide whether to give more resources to ex-offenders, education, or senior citizens,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s being very shortsighted when we say let’s not give money to ex-offenders to help their transition. Because at the end of the day, they may re-offend, and we may have additional costs, new victims, and we’ll have to house them again into a new facility that will be expensive.” 

Mitchell said he does not believe there’s a high likelihood that new state laws improving voting rights for felons will pass, largely due to the divide between federal and state government. Missouri’s current law requires felons to serve their term of imprisonment, parole, and probation before being allowed to vote.