Equal voting rights in the criminal justice system


Nationally, people of color make up nearly half of incarcerated people (Porter, 2020). This is a staggering statistic compared to the overall percentage of people of color in the United States – 23.7% of the population (Jones et al., 2021). Without a doubt, our country’s justice system is flawed, due to racial disparities caused by mass incarceration and community over-control. Moreover, unequal voting rights for convicted felons and inaccessibility for those held in prison awaiting trial undermine democracy and make reform difficult. Therefore, in order to preserve the democracy of the United States, it is crucial to grant convicted felons equal voting rights.

Moreover, the emancipation of criminals will instill in them the determination not to re-offend after their release from prison. With this idea in mind, researcher Mandeep Dhami (2005) states, “Allowing prisoners to vote…can strengthen their social ties and commitment to the common good, thereby promoting legally responsible participation in civil society”. This proves that allowing convicted felons to vote will provide them with connections to their communities outside of prison. These social connections will help criminals regain their sense of purpose and self-esteem. Also, in the article “Many in Jail Can Vote, But Exercising the Right Is Not Easy,” Matt Vasiligambros (2021) quotes Marlena Jentz, the first deputy executive director of Cook County Jail in Chicago. Jentz says, “If we want to play an important role in bringing people back to our communities as stronger citizens, there’s no better way to do that than to vote. This first-hand account of the issue further explains how allowing incarcerated people to vote will strengthen their character by involving them in the democratic process. It is obvious that many people take their right to vote for granted, but giving those rights to prisoners will make them feel that their contributions to society are important, which can lead them to readjust in prison. That being said, equal voting rights will give criminals a greater chance of reentering society as refined citizens and not committing additional offences.

Second, disenfranchising inmates silences their voice in politics and limits reform within correctional institutions. According to journalist Chandra Bozelko (2019), “The fact that inmates have so little political power has allowed them to be victimized and killed in poorly run institutions”. This highlights how the prison population is often overlooked and treated as less than human. Denying the right to vote will leave prisoners without a say in the laws surrounding prison reform, even though those laws will have a direct impact on their lives. Bozelko (2019) further asserts that “because incarcerated people lack political power, many politicians have deemed them unnecessary”. Therefore, the impact of disenfranchisement on inmates is significant, as their lives are seen as worthless, simply due to their previous offences. This state of mind leaves very little room for prisoners to readapt. Furthermore, Dhami (2005) states: “Denying prisoners the right to vote is likely to undermine respect for the rule of law since citizens who cannot participate in law-making are unlikely to recognize their authority . This shows that disenfranchisement of prisoners not only threatens democracy, but will ensure that politicians will not be held accountable for their actions. As such, giving felons the right to vote will allow them to be heard by political leaders, which will ultimately help lead prison reform efforts.

In the same way, depriving criminals of their right to vote will lead to a reduction in the political powers of their communities. Due to over-surveillance of communities, the school-to-prison pipeline, institutionalized racism, and mass incarceration, people of color are disproportionately present in the criminal justice system. In the words of Nicole Lewis and Aviva Shen (2019), “Overexposure to the criminal justice system weakens the political power of these communities and makes people less likely to vote, now and in the future, according to research. This shows that not allowing prisoners to vote will also impact their communities by making community members feel that their opinions and beliefs do not matter in the political system. Overall, this will lead to greater oppression of marginalized groups within politics. Additionally, Joel Castón (2021), the first incarcerated individual to be elected to public office in Washington, DC, discusses how giving him a voice also helped give his community a voice. Castón (2021) states: “If we can engage with issues of civic engagement and economic principles, then we can begin to move towards a more democratic society”. This statement implies that if we continue to deny incarcerated people their right to vote, we will be moving further away from a more unified nation. Engaging inmates in elections will encourage them to return to their communities and continue their civic participation. Granting the right to vote to convicted felons will help their communities grow and have a greater impact on our nation’s politics.

On the other hand, some may argue that criminals should not be allowed to vote because they cannot be held accountable after being convicted of heinous crimes. However, this argument carries little weight because although criminals have committed crimes, they still deserve the basic human rights that come with being an American citizen. The ideal prison system is based on the rehabilitation of convicted persons. Giving inmates equal voting rights will help promote the idea of ​​rehabilitation in correctional institutions. For example, writer Nicole Porter (2020) states, “Civic participation has been linked to reduced recidivism and supports public safety goals. This demonstrates that granting inmates the civic responsibility to vote will promote their rehabilitation and deter them from reoffending after release. With the right to vote in place for felons, communities across America have the opportunity to become stronger and safer. Moreover, Castón (2021) states, “If you have a prison population that functions in the democratic process, I think the same mindset will follow individuals once they are reintegrated into society. This statement proves that empowering inmates will help them reintegrate effectively into society and motivate them to become more balanced citizens. To uphold the beliefs of American democracy, it is imperative that we grant all convicted felons equal voting rights.

Finally, it is necessary to give convicted criminals an equal right to vote in order to preserve our democracy. If the prison population is engaged in the democratic process, they are more likely not to re-offend after release from prison. Allowing inmates to vote will allow them to return to their communities responsible for the civic duties that come with being an American citizen. In addition, emancipation will give criminals a voice in politics, which can help guide political leaders and authority figures as they pursue prison reform efforts. Equal voting rights for felons means creating stronger communities and, overall, a stronger, more democratic nation. And, while there are many arguments about whether or not inmates should have equal voting rights, there is evidence that these basic rights will help the incarcerated population change their lives for the better. Prison should be a place of rehabilitation, and if equal voting rights are in place, prisons could be more effective in rehabilitating those serving criminal charges. Overall, in our country, many citizens take the right to vote for granted and choose not to vote in federal and state elections. The next time there is an election, think of those who are in prison and cannot vote, and vote for politicians who see criminal justice reform as a priority.


Bozelko, C. (2019, April 12). Bernie Sanders wants incarcerated people to vote. Here’s why he’s right. Common dreams. common dreams.org/views/2019/04/12/bernie-sanders-wants-prisoners-to-vote-here-why-he-is-right

Castón, J. (2021, July 26). A seat at the table. Investigation. investigation.org/commissioner-joel-caston-a-seat-at-the-table/

Dhami, M. (2005). Politics of disenfranchisement of prisoners: a threat to democracy? citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Jones, N., Marks, R., Ramirez, R., and Rios-Vargas M. (August 12, 2021). The 2020 census sheds light on the racial and ethnic makeup of the country. United States Census Bureau. census.gov/library/stories/2021/08/improved-race-ethnicity-measures-reveal-united-states-population-much-more-multiracial.html

Lewis, N. & Shen, A. (2020, October 26). Unlock votes in prisons. The Marshall Project. themarshallproject.org/2020/10/26/unlock-voting-in-jail

Porter, N. (2020, May 7). Voting in prisons. The Penalty Project. draft sentencing.org/publications/voting-in-jail/

Vasilogambros, M. (2021, July 16). Many in prison can vote, but exercising this right is not easy. BENCH. pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2021/07/16/many-in-prison-can-vote-but-exercising-this-right-is-not-easy


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