The Violence of Felony Disenfranchisement
Photo Credit AP
“Low-level, nonviolent offenders” is a phrase used regularly in discussions regarding carceral state reform and criminal law jurisprudence. Both the left and right-wing ideologies invoke the narratives and experiences of nonviolent offenders to advocate for reform initiatives such as the First Step Act, as well as efforts to address the root causes of crime and recidivism. The dichotomic language of “violent” versus “nonviolent” has the effect of painting a black-and-white picture; the former elicits images of weapons and endangerment of life, whereas the latter seems based in the wrong of moral miscalculations. However, such a conception of violent and nonviolent offenses are deceptive. At a time when we have the opportunity to broadly reimagine our justice system, unpacking this dichotomy is an integral step to addressing overarching issues of disproportionate sentencing and mass incarceration.
When used in the context of the legal system, the term “violent” simply does not comport with a basic understanding of the word. In fact, Mirriam-Webster’s first definition of violent is: “marked by the use of usually harmful or destructive physical force.” Yet a Marshall Project 50 state survey examining what offenses are deemed as “violent” shows that oftentimes there is no physical force involved in these offenses, let alone “destructive” or “deadly” force. In more than twelve states, entering a dwelling that is not one’s own is often deemed as burglary, which is classified as a violent offense. In many states, the manufacture and theft of drugs is also deemed violent, as is purse-snatching. In Minnesota, cannabis possession is deemed as a violent offense, depending on the amount, and in North Carolina, “trafficking a stolen identity and selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or playground are both violent crimes.” Additionally, in New York, merely possessing a loaded gun illegally is classified as a violent felony.
Nearly half of the population in United States correctional facilities are serving time for a violent offense. The arbitrary nature of labeling a crime as such becomes shockingly apparent given the fact that the number of those imprisoned for violent offenses continued to grow even after the violent crime rate dropped to half of the early-1990s rate.
Within the realm of sentencing, words are not just words, but carry tremendous weight in determining the lives of those convicted. Individuals labeled as “violent” offenders often face mandatory minimums longer than do their “nonviolent” counterparts and encounter difficulties such as the “three strikes” rule and “habitual violent offender” penalties—the latter of which have particularly devastating effects on immigrants and non-citizens, who could face deportation. Additionally, the practice of disenfranchising incarcerated folks at the ballot box also reveals the nuances of violent versus nonviolent offenses. 6.1 million Americans are precluded from participating in our democracy due to a felony conviction; in twenty-one states, voting rights are automatically restored after parole and/or probation. However, states such as Nevada, Wyoming, Kentucky, and Florida have voting restoration that turns on whether the offense was nonviolent or violent in nature.
Now, more than ever, it is imperative to raise awareness regarding the false dichotomy of violent and nonviolent classification of offenses. Undoing this arbitrary classification can work towards lessening sentences and reducing overall incarceration rates. Additionally, amidst primary elections and the upcoming presidential and congressional elections, our democracy hinges on ongoing systemic reform, and addressing felony disenfranchisement is key to that work. We must advocate for the overhaul of the carceral state as well as for changes in conviction, so that individuals cannot be deprived—neither temporarily nor permanently—of their right to vote on the basis of unjust laws.