By Melissa Stiehler
When I was a child, my father’s polling place was in my elementary school. He would take me out of class to go vote with him. The school set up “Kids Vote” booths next to the adult booths and my father would walk me through my ballot, telling me why he was voting for each candidate as a way to support our family; such as, “I’m voting for this school board member because I want you to have a good education,” or “I’m voting for this representative because I want a strong social security system so when I’m old, you won’t have to take care of me.”
For my dad, voting was an act of love and a way to care for his family, but shortly thereafter, he was convicted of a felony drug offense and lost his right to vote. He no longer could care for us or show us love in that way. He had lost one of the core values of his citizenship.
Our current national conversation about whether people should be allowed to vote while incarcerated demonstrates just how much more work needs to be done in eliminating the stigma that being charged with a felony makes you a bad person.
Both of my parents are convicted felons. Both of my parents are good people. I’ve seen first-hand how the cycle of poverty and lack of access to mental health care for those who need it most tends to create desperate circumstances.
My parents, and the vast majority of felons, committed crimes of desperation.
People in our society are convicted in a broken, unjust system that prioritizes wealth over rehabilitation and ostensibly criminalizes poverty.
When my parents were released with a felony record and with no resources and with no support, their ability to find work to support our family became nearly impossible. We don’t actually rehabilitate anyone. We just break their legs and blame them for limping.
And while my parents struggled to hold themselves and our family together, the treatment they needed and that our family needed them to have, eluded them. Let’s be clear: Sending people to prison has never healed anyone’s mental illness.
That’s why I work to expand voting rights for all citizens and fight for folks like my dad and work against the efforts of people for whom no amount of punishment seems to be enough.
I’d ask those of you who feel that way, has all of this crushing punishment created the results you’re looking for in a just society? Has disenfranchising more than 6 million people nationally led to a healthier democracy?
Or has it stripped people of their civic pride, pushed them into the margins and stolen their ability to fight against the very community issues that led to their incarceration the first place?
People don’t cease to be people when they commit a felony.
But our society loses a bit of its humanity each time we treat them that way.
Melissa Stiehler is the citizen participation field organizer for the ACLU of Kansas.