Voting is a fundamental right in our nation. Since the 1960’s when the Voting Rights Act repealed the Jim Crow laws that sought to disenfranchise African-American voters that right has been protected from all sorts of shenanigans. Now the Tennessee legislature has voted to restore one of these laws, the poll tax.
Just like many Jim Crow laws, this law doesn’t apply to everyone, but people who have served their time in jail, and been released.
Its easy to continue to hold a grudge against these folks. That’s the emotional thing to do for folks who hold order as sacred over equality. But these people have paid their debt to society. If they are to be successful back here in the outside world, they must find a way to re-integrate back into society. Having their voting rights restored is one of those steps to re-integration.
But as a story by TN Report notes, a new law, if signed by the Governor, would make the restoration of voting rights that much more difficult, by requiring felons to pay all their court costs and fees BEFORE they can have their voting rights restored.
Supporters of this bill argue that paying court costs is a part of a felons debt to society and that by restoring their voting rights before those costs are paid, we are “victimizing twice” the victims of the original crime.
But the fact of the matter is that few released felons have bright employment futures ahead of them. Their re-integration back into society is the single biggest challenge facing them and us. How these individuals make their way in these weeks and months after release often has a huge impact on whether or not they will return to the Department of Corrections. Requiring them to pay all the fees associated with their incarceration before they can fully re-integrate into society is an unnecessary barrier that compounds this challenge.
The reality is that people in jail contribute zero to society. In fact, they are a drain on resources. It is in our best interest to do everything possible to ensure that they have the opportunity to contribute and become a productive member of society. This bill does nothing to help that process.
In the end, this is about whether or not we believe people who have been released from prison have been punished enough. The supporters of this bill don’t think they have. The supporters of his bill think they should be punished more, even though by they are technically “free”. In prescribing this additional punishment, the legislature has virtually ensured that becoming a productive member of society on the “outside” is that much harder to attain.
Should released felons be required to pay back their court costs and associated fees? Absolutely, that’s part of their responsibility. But should we, as a society, continue to punish these individuals by withholding their voting rights because their circumstances make paying those fees a lengthy and burdensome process? No. They’ve paid their debt in time, and while nothing can undo the crime they committed that put them in this situation, continuing to punish them because they lack the resources to pay fees and court costs is punishing an individual for something they have no control over, being poor.