Restore rights to ex-felons

Felon exclusion laws impact not only individuals, but also communities, according to a University of Missouri-Columbia law professor. By their suppressive nature, the legal statutes, which vary from state to state, have devastating socio-economic, political and legal effects on African-American communities nationwide, he contends.

“Most felons come from particular communities – lower socio-economic status communities and primarily communities of color,” said S. David Mitchell, associate professor of law. “The problem is that upon release, if you send that large percentage back into those communities, you’re adding an increased layer of problems to a community that’s already suffering. What you’re sending back are voiceless and powerless individuals. Thus, the economic and political power of the community is limited.”

In his article, “Undermining Individual and Collective Citizenship: The Impact of Exclusion Laws on the African-American Community,” to be published this month in the Fordham Urban Law Journal, Mitchell discussed exclusion laws that prohibit convicted felons from exercising a host of legal rights – most notably the opportunity to vote. In addition to suffrage, which is most commonly debated among scholars and legal experts, Mitchell advocates that upon completion of their sentences, ex-felons should have all of their rights restored – especially those associated with social services; public and private employment; the opportunity to serve on a jury; and privilege to hold public office. He said restoration should take place without requiring burdensome processes or financial restitution, which are required in some states.

“When ex-felons have finished their time, they should have all of their rights automatically restored,” Mitchell said. “Now, my detractors would say, ‘Does that mean if someone is convicted of a sex offense crime, they should be allowed to hold a job in an education-related field?’ No … there are conditions; however, a greater relationship between the nature of the offense and the restrictions being applied should exist.”

In examining the issue, Mitchell said his goal was to explore the “entire notion of citizenship and what it really means to be a United States citizen.” He concluded the restoration of a cadre of rights is just as important as the right to vote. Restrictions only limit the quality of life and impede the successful reentry of individuals attempting to re-establish themselves in their communities.

“Most people tend to focus solely on the denial of the right to vote, which is incredibly important. But I think it’s a narrow view, which is why I discuss what it means to be a citizen – particularly for African Americans and other underrepresented groups,” said Mitchell, who also is a sociologist. “Citizenship is more than just an opportunity to cast a ballot. Voting is important, but if I can’t have a home, can’t feed my family and don’t have a job, do I really feel like an American citizen? If an ex-felon can’t earn a living, then why would he or she adopt the values of society upon being released? If you’re not allowing them back into society fully, then why should they adopt our rules? They have no reason to uphold the laws, and there becomes a greater propensity to re-commit crimes.”

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