At the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself.”
While King’s passion for the right to vote profoundly transformed history, one group remains disfranchised today: America’s incarcerated population. A bill in the Connecticut General Assembly, H.B. 5702, would fix that.
The right to vote is one of America’s most fundamental rights. Revoking that right inevitably separates some citizens from others, severing the connections in the American population that make us one unified country.
When many incarcerated individuals have their right to vote withheld, they have a harder time immersing back into society. In a 2004 article published in the New Haven Register, researchers found that incarcerated youth in New Haven who voted in a mock election felt more connected to their communities and were more likely to participate in civic activities upon their release.
Taking part in government and feeling connected to the community can reduce recidivism rates greatly. In fact, according to the Connecticut Department of Corrections, the state had a re-arrest rate of nearly 79% in 2012.
Connecticut desperately needs to work on lowering these numbers and reintegrating formerly incarcerated citizens into society. Accomplishing this would go a long way toward creating a more just and equitable state while also easing the burden on the state of arresting and imprisoning re-offenders.
Disenfranchising imprisoned citizens also deepens pre-existing racial divides across the state. Connecticut’s current laws disallowing prisoners from voting predominantly impact the Black and Latinx communities in the state.
Denying the vote to one person has a ripple effect, dramatically decreasing the political power of urban and minority communities, which are significantly more likely to face prison time. This is appalling as, according to a study conducted at New York University, 2.8 million African-American children currently have an incarcerated parent. As a result, many African-American children have an image of a parent that doesn’t vote, which can have negative consequences.
Additionally, by denying incarcerated individuals the right to vote, the state is preventing many individuals from participating in reforming important issues to many in the incarcerated population, such as education and prison reform. Their voices are left unheard at the state level, meaning that the issues directly affecting them are not resolved.
House Bill 5702, currently in the Connecticut State Assembly, would allow incarcerated individuals to vote. This bill will completely transform the voting rights of an estimated 10,000 individuals. If passed, H.B. 5702 would alleviate disparities in the criminal justice system, promote civic engagement, and increase election participation.
Currently, the District of Columbia, Maine and Vermont all have similar pieces of legislation signed into law. Connecticut has a higher Black and Latinx population than Maine and Vermont, which means that Connecticut has the chance to significantly impact minority communities, possibly encouraging 47 other states to pass similar legislation. As a state, we can be part of a movement to ensure no American is denied their basic rights.
I urge the Connecticut State Assembly to give incarcerated people back their voices. Should Connecticut take the step to promote civic engagement for those in prisons, it will drastically increase engagement in the political process across the state. It will also give inmates back a sense of dignity and purpose.
Connecticut has a rare opportunity to become a model for improving prison conditions and offenders’ ability to reintegrate into society; we cannot pass it up.
Casey Lewis is a member of the Yale Democrats.