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Martin Horn: Amendment 4 is good criminal justice policy

Florida is one of just four states that bans individuals with past felony convictions from voting for life.

This has resulted in 1.4 million Floridians, roughly 10 percent of the state’s voting-age population, being unable to vote. An estimated 27 percent of all disenfranchised formerly incarcerated people in the country reside in Florida. Amendment 4 could change that by restoring the eligibility to vote to people who have completed their sentence, including probation and parole.

I believe strongly in the rule of law, having served in corrections for more than 40 years, as Executive Director of the New York State Paroling Authority, as Commissioner of the New York City Departments of Correction and of Probation, and as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections. The rule of law means there must be consequences for our actions, and in our justice system, incarceration plays a role in carrying out those consequences. But what happens after incarceration? Should the consequences of a person’s mistakes follow them for life, even after they’ve served their sentence and paid their debts to society?

I believe the answer is no, which is why I’m urging a yes vote on Amendment 4, Florida’s voting restoration amendment.

As a prison administrator who has seen hundreds of thousands of people go through our criminal justice system, I know that a large part of successfully re-entering society is allowing individuals to take responsibility for themselves, their families and their communities. Returning citizens are expected to work, pay taxes and be productive members of society — and to identify themselves as part of the community. How can they if they aren’t allowed to vote? Americans reject the notion of ‘taxation without representation,’ but that’s effectively what’s happening to the 1.4 million Floridians with felony convictions who have no voice in deciding their elected representatives.

We all have a stake in the fate of those who have committed crimes. The public’s best interest is served by making sure people leaving prison don’t return to crime. Evidence shows that formerly incarcerated people who are engaged in civic duties, like voting, are less likely to commit new crimes and return to prison.

According to the Florida Parole Commission, individuals with felony convictions who have had their civil rights restored are three times less likely to re-offend. I know this to be true — those who rejoin the community, get a job and vote, have lower arrest rates, and less criminal than those who don’t.

We are better as a society when we live our values. Formerly incarcerated people are being disenfranchised in Florida under an outdated notion that punishing people for life for past mistakes is ‘tough on crime. Those who commit a crime should face the consequences, but if you’ve done your time and paid your debt to society, you have earned the opportunity for a second chance.

Redemption is at the core of the American experience every bit as much as ‘law and order.’ Vote yes on Amendment 4.

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Martin F. Horn is Distinguished Lecturer in Corrections at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He owns homes in Sarasota and New York.

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