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Applying Critical Race Theory to Felony Disenfranchisement in the United States: Analytical Essay

The United States blocked 6.1 million American citizens from voting in 2016. These people were restricted from practicing a democratic right because of felony convictions. Disproportionately affected by these constraints were Black individuals, reflecting other discrepancies within the criminal justice system (Mauer, 2018; Uggen, Larson, & Shannon, 2016). Today, there is increasing attention in the United States toward its mass incarceration epidemic and how bias in the criminal justice system is unfairly affecting people of color. Unfortunately, there is little mainstream acknowledgement of felony disenfranchisement or the purposeful and legal voting restrictions placed on individuals who find themselves convicted of felony charges. Critical Race Theory applies to this issue, as its discriminatory roots are often ignored, white-washing its history and pretending it is a racially neutral policy. Today, this policy continues to serve white people in power, and there is little mainstream effort to eradicate it.

Description of Setting

Setting, Population, and Services

Those working with prisoners and individuals who have experienced voter disenfranchisement would likely be criminal justice social workers or forensic social workers. These workers commonly conduct psychosocial assessments to understand underlying issues that led to offenders’ criminal behavior and aim to connect clients to resources to address those needs. Workers may guide clients through life skills development, coping skills training, or psychoeducational groups and may conduct case management and home visits. Clients could include inmates or recently released ex-offenders, both populations that could be affected by felony disenfranchisement, depending on the state. Criminal justice social workers and forensic social workers are tasked with servicing those who have largely been abandoned or dismissed by mainstream society (“Who Are Criminal Justice Social Workers?”, n.d.).

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Demographic Information About People Who Receive Services

Social workers within the criminal justice system are designated with heavy caseloads, as there are about 2.2 million people in the United States who are incarcerated, along with approximately 3.7 million people facing probation and 871,000 people experiencing parole, as of 2017 (The Sentencing Project, n.d.b). In the last 40 years, there has been a 500 percent increase in the number of people in jails and prisons, largely because of changes in laws and policies rather than an increasing crime rate. While only 37 percent of the population in the United States includes people of color, they make up 67 percent of the prison population, making Black men six times more likely to be imprisoned as compared to white men (The Sentencing Project, n.d.a). Gender discrepancies can also be seen within the system, as there were 1.3 million men imprisoned in 2017 as compared to 105,000 women (The Sentencing Project, n.d.b).

Policy

Identification of Policy

Because incarceration rates have dramatically increased since the 1970s, an increasing proportion of the adult population is excluded from voting because of felony disenfranchisement (Uggen, Larson, & Shannon, 2016). Many people may imagine that this number is largely made up of people currently serving prison sentences, but 77 percent of those who are disenfranchised are in the community, serving probation or parole sentences, or having completed their sentence (Mauer, 2018). Disenfranchisement laws are left up to the state, meaning policies vary widely (Uggen, Larson, & Shannon, 2016). Some states, such as Maine and Vermont, have no policies

regarding disenfranchising felons, meaning those serving prison sentences are still eligible to vote. On the other end, states like Iowa, Kentucky, Virginia, and, until recently, Florida, put an automatic lifetime ban on voting if one is convicted of a felony; this ban can only be lifted by the governor or a pardons board (Mauer, 2018). The majority of states put voting restrictions on those serving prison, probation, or parole sentences (Uggen, Larson, & Shannon, 2016).

History and Goal of Policy

It is nearly impossible to separate the history of this policy from its discriminatory beginning and racist use throughout time by those in power. Disenfranchisement policies have existed in America since its conception; the idea was practiced during colonial times and continued after the nation’s founding. In the beginning, disenfranchisement policies made sure only white, wealthy men could vote, and these policies have been revised over time to ensure that only certain sectors of the population have access to voting. During the post-Reconstruction era, many states enacted disenfranchisement policies to ensure that Black men did not have access to their newly won voting rights, commonly outlining which crimes would result in disenfranchisement based on arrest patterns and crimes that were commonly associated with certain races (Mauer, 2018). The United States voting population is closely divided, meaning the disenfranchisement of even 2 percent of the population would likely affect the electoral process; because of mass incarceration and the overrepresentation of Black citizens in the criminal justice system, this policy affects which voices are reflected in the polls (Mauer, 2018; Ochs, 2006). Racism is no longer legal, per say, but criminal disenfranchisement laws that were passed roughly 150 years ago were created with prejudiced intent and continue to deprive Black citizens of voting rights, achieving their original goals (Sennott & Galliher, 2006).

Population Policy Serves

Felony disenfranchisement’s original goal is reflected today in the population that it serves, as it helps white people in a position of power retain that influence. Higher rates of conviction and incarceration have turned into higher rates of disenfranchisement among African Americans, with out of every 13 Black adults losing voting rights, or 36 percent of the overall population experiencing disenfranchisement. This translates to Black individuals being barred from voting at a rate four times higher than non-African American individuals (Mauer, 2018). Decades of research demonstrate that for the same criminal behavior, non-white people are more likely to be arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to prison at every step within the criminal justice system. Thus, disenfranchisement works to diminish the representation that people of color have in the electoral college. Studies have shown that disenfranchisement can have effects on entire neighborhoods, diluting the voices of even law-abiding citizens, because high numbers of convicted felons tend to come from certain inner-city neighborhoods (Reiman, 2005).

Application of Critical Race Theory

Definition of Critical Race Theory

Policies like felony disenfranchisement can be looked at through a Critical Race Theory lens. Critical Race Theory (CRT) studies how race is socially constructed and its relation to power and racism. CRT questions the idea that laws and systems in the United States are fair and colorblind, recognizing the history of institutionalized racism that has maintained white supremacy (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). Those who view society through a CRT lens acknowledge that racism is the status quo; this can make racism hard to recognize because it is so normalized. While white people in the United States benefit from white supremacy, many are unwilling to see that racism exists in this country and often remove themselves from the

country’s racist history and legacy, viewing racism as something of the past rather than a system they currently benefit from. These benefits mean there is little incentive for white people to eliminate white supremacy (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017; Gillborn, 2005).

Felony Disenfranchisement Through a Critical Race Theory Lens

Many elements of felony disenfranchisement align with the principle ideas of CRT. Common arguments used to support felony disenfranchisement ignore race, moving away from the policy’s racist history, and making laws seem neutral or colorblind despite their disproportionate outcomes. One classical argument to support disenfranchising those who are convicted of a felony is that these individuals have violated a social contract and have, thus, forfeited their rights entitled to them. Another standard argument in support of disenfranchisement is that felons lack a civic virtue that is a prerequisite needed to vote. Both arguments make assumptions about the character of those who are convicted of a felony and place judgments on voter eligibility that is typically not thought to be relevant in a true democracy (Reiman, 2005). These arguments also allow people to perpetuate the false idea that this policy is equal for all, ignoring how it affects entire communities of color.

Along with this, these arguments allow for the policy’s history to be white-washed, as individuals can focus on “neutral” ideas rather than the policy’s discriminatory origin and racist history. The policy’s long presence, beginning before the United States was even an independent country, also normalizes racism and discrimination. In turn, moving away from how this policy has been used to silence Black citizens in order to maintain white supremacy allows for white people to simultaneously ignore racism and benefit from it, as the status quo is maintained and white people have a disproportionate voice in the polls. Political representation continues to reflect those who already hold power in this country, and as white people continue to benefit from this policy, there is little incentive to eradicate it.

Without looking at felony disenfranchisement with a CRT lens, it can be easy to ignore how it is used as a tool of power. As Gillborn (2005) mentions, underlying assumptions and mechanisms can commonly sustain inequity and benefits for certain groups. The assumption that felons are less deserving of voting rights is mostly accepted in the United States, and this assumption means this policy is maintained. If one solely pays attention to classical arguments regarding disenfranchisement, rather than paying attention to the discriminatory origin of the policy and the way it has been used to silence Black communities throughout the years, it can be easy to ignore how this policy benefits white people and allows for those in power to maintain that control. This policy has long been used to intentionally take away people’s voices, but only certain ones; those who benefit from it may be unaware or simply ignore that because of its benefits.

Why the Policy is Problematic

When looking at felony disenfranchisement from a CRT lens, it is clear that this policy has discriminatory outcomes that impede social justice. Felony disenfranchisement systematically excludes people of color from rights of citizenship and silences entire communities, threatening political representation and democracy (Mauer, 2018). It is difficult to see how the United States is truly a democratic country when millions of adult citizens are legally barred from voting, and the ambivalence toward the policy’s prejudiced outcomes makes it seem that this discrimination is entirely intentional. As Costello (2011) writes, referencing Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, mass incarceration is a present-day racial caste system, no different or less

harmful than slavery. “White only” signs of the Jim Crow era that excluded Black people from sectors of society have been replaced by rules against felons as they try to navigate life post-incarceration and encounter housing, education, employment, and loan discrimination. Felony disenfranchisement is a key part of silencing Black people and shutting them out of society, similar to the Jim Crow era (Costello, 2011).

Conclusion

Nearly any policy or practice in the United States can be looked at through a Critical Race Theory lens when looking at its history, goals, and who benefits from it. Because most racism has become discrete and normalized, it can be hard to even acknowledge the pervasive ways that it still exists today and harms people of color. The white-washing of history and the origins of policies and practices contribute to white people’s ability to ignore systemic racism in this country. If systematic change is going to happen in this country, white people will have to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from policies and practices that perpetuate white supremacy and will have to actively work at eradicating it. Voting rights is a critical part of social justice and democracy, and for change to happen, the United States will have to ensure that all adult citizens have the right to vote, regardless of one’s felony status; millions of people are waiting for this change.

References

  1. Costello, R. (2011). Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow. Crime, Law and Social Change, 55(1), 53-55. doi:http://dx.doi.org.du.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10611-010-9266-1
  2. Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical race theory (third edition): An introduction (Vol. 20). NYU Press.
  3. Gillborn, D. (2005). Educational policy as an act of white supremacy: Whiteness, critical race theory, and education reform. Journal of Educational Policy, 20(4), 484–505. doi:10.1080/02680930500132346
  4. Mauer, M. (2018). Confronting felony disenfranchisement: Toward a movement for full citizenship. Social Justice, 45(1), 13-25,131. Retrieved from http://du.idm.oclc.org/login?Url=?url=https://search-proquest-com.du.idm.oclc.org/docview/2184399481?accountid=14608
  5. Ochs, H. L. (2006). 'Colorblind' policy in black and white: Racial consequences of disenfranchisement policy. Policy Studies Journal, 34(1), 81-93. Retrieved from http://du.idm.oclc.org/login?Url=?url=https://search-proquest-com.du.idm.oclc.org/docview/210538568?accountid=14608
  6. Reiman, J. (2005). Liberal and republican arguments against the disenfranchisement of felons. Criminal Justice Ethics, 24(1), 3-18. Retrieved from http://du.idm.oclc.org/login?Url=?url=https://search-proquest-com.du.idm.oclc.org/docview/209768660?accountid=14608
  7. Sennott, C., & Galliher, J. F. (2006). Lifetime felony disenfranchisement in Florida, Texas, and Iowa: Symbolic and instrumental law. Social Justice, 33(1), 79-94. Retrieved from
  8. http://du.idm.oclc.org/login?Url=?url=https://search-proquest-com.du.idm.oclc.org/docview/231924848?accountid=14608
  9. The Sentencing Project. (n.d.). Criminal justice facts. Retrieved from https://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/.
  10. The Sentencing Project. (n.d.). State-by-state data. Retrieved from https://www.sentencingproject.org/the-facts/#detail?state1Option=U.S. Total&state2Option=0.
  11. Uggen, C., Larson, R., & Shannon, S. (2016). 6 million lost voters: State-level estimates of felony disenfranchisement, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/6-million-lost-voters-state-level-estimates-felony-disenfranchisement-2016/.
  12. Who are criminal justice social workers? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mswguide.org/careers/criminal-justice-social-work/.

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