Tim Mak, in The Daily Beast, reports that a compromise may be brewing on criminal justice reform. A left-right coalition is starting to coalesce around a unique compromise idea: allow the restoration of both voting rights and the right to own firearms for non-violent ex-felons . . .
Perhaps the idea shouldn’t be that shocking.
“If someone asked me if I would rather vote for mayor or have a gun, I’d rather have a gun,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a signatory to the conservative Right on Crime criminal justice reform coalition….
Criminal-justice reform is a hot topic in Washington, D.C. this Congress, driven by the prospect of bipartisan collaboration in an era of divided government. Leading lawmakers in both Republican and Democratic camps have proposed legislation that would address police militarization, civil asset forfeiture, and mandatory minimum sentences.
Groups such as the Brennan Center and the ACLU have also been working on reenfranchising felons in some way….
It’s a long-shot idea, and in its embryonic stage. But tough-on-crime conservatives aren’t likely to budge on the restoration of voting rights to felons—who, they suspect, will not vote for their candidates if re-enfranchised—if they don’t get something in return.
“It is the obvious compromise,” Norquist said. “Many conservatives willing to restore voting rights would not be willing to suggest Second Amendment rights are second-class rights… In talking to conservatives, some are more or less excited about speeding up voting rights restoration. But all, when asked, agree voting rights should not precede gun rights.”
To get an idea of how many people we’re talking about here, a 2008 estimate puts the total number of people in the U.S. with a felony conviction at around 12 million people. Under federal law (18 U.S.C. sec. 922(g)), all of these individuals are currently barred from owning a firearm – in addition to anyone who has been convicted of a crime (not necessarily a felony) that is potentially punishable by more than one year in prison. I haven’t found any estimates on how many people fit into that category – if anyone has a good source, i’d love to hear it. It would save me a lot of FOIA requests.
Another estimate puts the number of people currently barred from voting in elections due to state law violations at 5.85 million people (the numbers are not identical because not every state bars voting by ex-felons).
Is it a good idea to restore the full panoply of rights – including voting rights and the right to keep and bear arms – to all ex-felons? I’m not averse in principle to a sliding scale of punishment, allowing an ex-con to be released into society with certain restrictions, giving him a chance to prove his rehabilitation. After all, if we have no qualms with the death penalty or life imprisonment, I’m not sure there is a constitutional objection to a permanently suspending a smaller number of rights as a punishment depending on the facts of the case.
At the same time, I can see an objection to the idea of a permanent suspension of rights for people released back into society and never giving them a way to restore those rights absent a pardon. I’m also not sure what goal these permanent suspensions of rights after release are supposed to accomplish. Does losing the legal rights to own a firearm and vote somehow add more of a deterrent effect than possibly being sent to prison for 20 years?
If a convict has served his time, paid his debt to society and is deemed fit to walk free again, it seems to me there ought to at least be a path to the full restoration of rights. As Mr. Mak points out in his article, right now, someone convicted of tax fraud, or “harvesting too many fish commercially”, or any other crime potentially punishable by more than one year in prison (even if the convict never served a day) permanently loses their rights to vote and keep and bear arms. That just seems a bit too much to swallow.