What Do Democrats Actually Mean by 'Criminal Justice Reform'?

Illustration for article titled What Do Democrats Actually Mean by 'Criminal Justice Reform'?
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During a CNN Town Hall earlier this week, Senator Kamala Harris was asked if people in prison should have the right to vote. Harris responded that, “I think we should have that conversation.” But less than 24 hours later it seemed at least part of that conversation had already happened: “Do I think that people who commit murder, people who are terrorists, should be deprived of their rights? Yeah, I do,” Harris said during an event in New Hampshire the next day. “I’m a prosecutor, I believe that in terms of, there has to be serious consequence for the most extreme types of crimes.”


At the same CNN town hall this week, Pete Buttigieg was also asked about incarcerated people’s voting rights. His response was more frank: “No, I don’t think so.”

The room filled with applause:

“Part of the punishment when you are convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights,” Buttigieg said. “You lose your freedom. And I think during that period it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote.”

In the same breath, Buttigieg and Harris both expressed support for restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions after they have served their sentences, with Harris noting the injustice of the “6 million people who have served their time and are still prohibited from voting” in this country. Buttigieg also said that opposition to voting rights for formerly incarcerated people is partisan and has a “racial layer.”

They are both right on those counts: From community surveillance, to arrest, to jury deliberation, and sentencing, the criminal justice system is deeply racist and deeply classist.

But as the idea of criminal justice reform gains momentum among Democrats and Republicans—it’s a rare issue where some bipartisan consensus exists—politicians in both parties are punting on the actual work of reforming the system to become more just and less needlessly punitive. (Not every person in prison right now is there for a non-violent marijuana conviction, basically.) That kind of sidestep is exactly what happened with Harris and Buttigieg’s respective answers. It was an effort to dodge the realities of incarceration: that some people in prisons are there for violence, repulsive crimes—and still have rights.


How can candidates that are in favor of criminal justice reform or against voter suppression back state laws that uphold voter suppression and prop up an unjust system?

Sanders’s response from the same forum gets at some of this—and preemptively warned about the consequences of Harris’s case-by-case response and Buttigieg’s outright rejection of the idea of voting while incarcerated:

Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away and you say, “Well, that guy committed a terrible crime, not going to let him vote. Well, that person did that. Not going to let that person vote,” you’re running down a slippery slope.


Additionally, criminal justice reform strategy that only focuses on non-violent and low-level offenses not only avoids confronting the complex reasons why people are incarcerated, it also leaves some of the most vulnerable behind. As lawyer Keith Wattley wrote in a New York Times op-ed critiquing the First Step Act, violent offenders (a loaded and often misleading term to begin with) are “not fundamentally different from people who have committed nonviolent offenses.”

He continued:

In my experience, violence has its roots in feelings of inadequacy and rejection dating back to childhood trauma. And most people who commit violence also have the capacity to reinterpret and overcome their traumatic experiences in a way that brings understanding to, and remorse for, their own actions, along with a newfound commitment to helping others learn from their experience.


It’s easy to be punitive and uphold the status quo, to determine that losing the right to vote just goes part in parcel with their punishment. It’s harder—but more just—to admit that even people who do bad things deserve basic rights, like voting. As Vann Newkirk noted in The Atlantic, “Even death-row inmates retain a broad array of constitutional rights, including access to due process, the right to sue, and the right to appeal. Why is the right to vote excluded?”

Additionally, imprisoned people are, though unable to vote in most states, included in census reports, which helps determine how districts are drawn and how partisan power is balanced. They are then part of our politics, but barred from having a voice.


As the 2020 election cycle trudges on, it’s worth asking which candidates have a vision of criminal justice reform that goes beyond differentiating between “good” and “bad” people in prisons, and who deserves what. Because whether it’s the ability to vote or access to heat and water, incarcerated people’s access to basic rights shouldn’t be up for debate.

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.



Because whether it’s the ability to vote or access to heat and water, incarcerated people’s access to basic rights shouldn’t be up for debate.

Uh, one of these things is not like the other. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t per the Geneva convention and basic jus cogens) deny a prisoner of war from a hostile foreign power access to heat or water—but you certainly shouldn’t let them vote.

There’s clearly a difference between what our system of laws and government construe as “inalienable human rights”, and what rights that are not “alienable human rights”. There is no Constitutional right to a vote, only Constitutional proscriptions against disenfranchising people on the basis of a handful of criteria like race, gender, whether they had at one time been a slave, etc.

I’m not saying there for sure isn’t a meritorious argument to be made for giving incarcerated persons the right to vote (though I think it’s unlikely I’d be persuaded), but if it exists, this definite ain’t it.