On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War announcing that “all persons held as slaves are and henceforward shall be free (History Net 1863).” However, slavery in the United States didn’t officially end until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865 after the Civil War was won. The freedom of the former slaves gained more power when Congress passed the 15th Amendment on February 26, 1869 granting African American men the right to vote. Yet, this amendment was not ratified until February 3, 1870. The road to true equality for African Americans has been a long and arduous process which has often been delayed by those, particularly white people, who desire to maintain the status quo. In fact, many believe that slavery has not actually been abolished but has reared its head and enslaved people in a different way. One only needs to look to the often ignored finer points of the 13th amendment and the history surrounding the 15th amendment to understand these claims.
The thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction (ourdocuments.gov 1865).” To most eyes, these words would not seem like terrible guidelines. If someone commits a crime, they become slaves to society. It makes sense. However, the 13th amendment has a deeper meaning once we understand the history of the 15th amendment which was ratified a mere five years after its predecessor. Soon after the 15th amendment was ratified giving black men the right to vote, felon disenfranchisement laws swept across many states. The states that typically adopted these felon disenfranchisement laws were those states that had the highest black population.
It isn’t difficult to comprehend what happened next. In the years to come, many black men were falsely accused of crimes making them slaves to the prison system. If and when they did serve their time and entered back into the world alive, they permanently lost their right to vote, keeping them from ever voting out the very system which continued to oppress them. Thus, continuing the cycle of racial disparity in the United States of America.
Criminal Justice and Racial Disparity
To put this in perspective, consider that even though slaves were technically given freedom in 1865, there was still cause for the Civil Rights Movement one hundred years later due to segregation. Even now, sixty years after the Civil Rights Movement, there are movements like Black Lives Matter which are still fighting against systematic racism. Though times have changed, problems pertaining to racism still remain and a common rebuttal against people who wish to dismantle systematic racism are phrases like, “Slavery happened more than a hundred years ago. Get over it.” One only needs to look at the history of how our nation has dealt with racial progress in order to understand why we must continue visiting the problem of racial domination in the present. Americans have handled racial disparity in institutions like our criminal justice system slowly, reluctantly, and many times taking two steps forward and one step back.
Problems Worth Solving
Presently, people have trouble reconciling problems such as felon disenfranchisement, The War on Drugs, successful reintegration for ex-offenders, etc., as issues that must be dealt with and dismantled with urgency. For instance, those who have served behind bars in America, with its obsession with crime and punishment, are doomed to never truly gain their freedom even long after they have served their time for the crimes they were convicted of. Not only do they lose their voting rights as previously stated, but they also become less desirable for employment, making it harder for ex-offenders to become productive members of society and preventing them from fully reintegrating into their communities. This, in turn, forces them back into the illegal activity that caused them to become an offender in the first place, thereby funneling them back into the prison system. The cycle continues leaving broken families and communities in its wake.
Employment for Ex-Offenders
Having difficulty finding work after they serve their sentences is a leading risk factor for ex-offenders going back to their criminal behavior. Nearly 60% of all ex-offenders in the United States are unemployed a year after they are released (Varghese et al. 2009). Since African Americans and Latinos are overrepresented amongst the population of offenders, poor opportunities for employment most often lead to heavy economical effects, not only for their personal families, but for the black and latino community as a whole. Although there are laws in place to prevent employers from discriminating against a person’s criminal history if their crime has nothing to do with their ability to perform their job, these sorts of laws are difficult to enforce. In a highly competitive job market, ex-offenders have very little chance of successfully reintegrating into society since those who serve prison sentences typically have little to no job training and are considered a liability to employers (Vargese et al. 2009; Miller and Spillane 2012).
Shortly after granting African American men the right to vote, many states put laws in place which denied offenders voting rights. The United States remains the only democracy which not only prevents current offenders from voting, but also ex-offenders. One wouldn’t think a law dating back to the 1800s could possibly still heavily affect real people living in our country today, but felon disenfranchisement was created as a work around to keep racial domination in place. Approximately 13% of black men are disqualified from casting their vote in elections because of a previous felony conviction resulting in felon disenfranchisement (Purtle 2013). In fact, according to Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer. authors of Racial Domination, Racial Progress, “Blacks and Hispanics account for 28% of the U.S. population but over 66% of all prisoners. Hispanic men are three times—and black men nearly eight times—-more likely than white men to be in prison (2010, pg. 256).” These statistics, coupled with the fact that felon disenfranchisement laws came into effect shortly after the 15th amendment was ratified, make mass incarceration the new modern plantation for blacks and hispanics who are imprisoned at these alarming rates.
What makes felon disenfranchisement a system of cyclical abuse is that an oppressed person who cannot vote does not have the power to vote out the system which keeps them oppressed. Understanding this, felon disenfranchisement does not only affect the individuals who are being disenfranchised, but it also has an effect on a national scale. The year 2000 presidential election between democratic candidate Al Gore and republican George W. Bush is a prime example of how disenfranchised citizens could sway elections. Florida, a swing state, was an important state to win in order to secure the presidency. 205,000 former African American offenders residing in Florida, who had already served their sentences, were not permitted to vote in this election. Since non-white voters typically vote a democratic ticket, political analysts have estimated if these disenfranchised citizens could have cast their ballots, Al Gore would have won the presidential election and many aspects of our country pertaining to policy could be drastically different right now (Desmond and Emirbayer 2010).
Many people are under the impression that, if given the opportunity, ex-offenders would not want to vote anyway because they care very little about our political process than people who have never committed an offense. Bryan Miller and Joseph Spillane (2012) conducted 54 semistructured interviews with ex-offenders in order to better understand their perspective on what not being able to vote meant to them. One ex-offender wrote, “I lose the right to give my opinion of what issues are important in our government today… issues like mental health and addiction process and problems and programming to help people with my problem to get better (Miller and Spillane).”
Ex-offenders desire the right to vote just like any other citizen in America. They care about the future of the country but lack the power to be an integral part of their country’s future. This leads to further alienation from their communities and could nudge them to commit more offenses because they feel powerless to change the world around them.
The War on Drugs
Along with felon disenfranchisement is another issue masked as a campaign for safer streets: The War on Drugs. As Michael Tonry (1994) points out in his article, “Race and the War on Drugs”, this so-called war could not have come at a time that was more odd. In 1980 when the War on Drugs became a popular political strategy to lower drug trafficking, America had already been experiencing a decline in drug use and there was no evidence pointing to harsher punishment for drug use being a plausible method to lower the rates. Tonry further explains in his article that the War on Drugs was a complete failure by its own objectives. If drugs were more difficult to find because the War on Drugs successfully depleted the methods to obtaining a drug supply, then that would mean the drugs still out there and available would be more expensive than they were prior to the War on Drugs because drugs would be much harder to find (Tonry 1994). This was not the case. For every drug dealer taken off the streets by police, a new drug dealer who was willing to take the risk for money would take their place (Rosino and Hughey 2016).
If its already mentioned failures were not enough to prove The War on Drugs ineffectiveness as public policy, Tonry also makes it clear that The War on Drugs was more like a war on black men. He states, “The War on Drugs foreseeably and unnecessarily blighted the lives of hundreds of thousands of young, disadvantaged Americans, especially black Americans, and undermined decades of effort to improve the life chances of members of the urban black underclass (Tonry 1994).”
As a result of the War on Drugs, families are separated because of drug use. This often results in leaving non-white children without one or both of their parents, continuing a vicious cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement. Because of the unsuccessfulness of the War on Drugs, drug use has been treated as a crime to be punished rather than as a health issue to be treated. Sadly, Americans are often more willing to pay for the punishment of offenders than they are willing to pay for their rehabilitation and they vote to elect officials who will handle their tax dollars accordingly (Rosino and Hughey 2016).
Despite the past injustices against people of color in our criminal justice systems, there is hope for a brighter future. In our constant, ever-evolving world much is changing in regards to the view of crime and punishment around the world. In nordic nations like Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, a different type of criminal justice is being rendered. It’s a system called restorative justice, which treats its offenders more like patients who need to be treated rather than as criminals who need to be punished (Sterbenz 2014).
One example of restorative justice is the idea of Prison-Based Drug Treatment (PDT). It is the view of nordic nations, when a drug offender comes through the prison to serve their time, that it isn’t a question of whether or not the offender will be treated for drug use, but a question of what type of treatment will be most effective for them (Kolind et al. 2013).
The effectiveness of restorative justice is clear when we look at the numbers. Norway’s incarceration rate is just 75 per 100,000 people. Compare this to 707 people for every 100,000 people in the U.S. In addition to this, when offenders in Norway leave prison, they do so for good. With one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world, only 20% of offenders are convicted again of an offense. The United States has one of the highest recidivism rates. 76.6% of prisoners are convicted of repeat offenses within five years (Sterbenz 2014). America, it would seem, has a lot to learn from its nordic friends.
152 years ago, slavery was abolished. However, evidence shows that freedom did not come without conditions. Racial disparities such as felon disenfranchisement, The War on Drugs, and difficulty finding employment for ex-offenders have plagued people of color, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, for generations. The War on Drugs took fathers away from their children, continuing cycles of poverty. Felon disenfranchisement has had an effect on the outcome of our elections and difficulty finding employment has lead to 76.6% of offenders to repeat their offenses within five years of being released from prison. Instead of working on plantations, people of color are now funneled into prisons often carrying punishments disproportionate to their crimes.
Nevertheless, if America can put away its desire for harsh punishment and learn from nordic nations concerning the success of restorative justice, the future could shine more brightly than all the past years of pain. If we are willing to handle criminal justice differently, then it is possible we can begin to progress and truly put slavery in the past.
Anon. 1863. “Emancipation Proclamation Text.” HistoryNet. Retrieved April 1, 2017 (http://www.historynet.com/emancipation-proclamation-text).
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Desmond, M., & Emirbayer, M. (2010). Racial Domination, Racial Progress: the Sociology of Race in America. Xxx: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.
Kolind, Torsten, Vibeke Frank, Odd Lindberg, and Jouni Tourunen. 2013. “Prison-Based Drug Treatment in Nordic Political Discourse: An Elastic Discursive Construct.” Sage Journals . Retrieved February 4, 2017
Miller, Bryan Lee and Joseph F. Spillane. 2012. “Civil death: An examination of ex-Felon disenfranchisement and reintegration.” Punishment & Society 14(4):402–28.
Purtle, J. (2013). Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States: A Health Equity Perspective. American Journal of Public Health, 103(4), 632-637. doi:10.2105/ajph.2012.300933
Rosino, M. L. and M. W. Hughey. 2016. “Speaking through Silence: Racial Discourse and Identity Construction in Mass-Mediated Debates on the “War on Drugs”.” Social Currents.
Sterbenz, Christina. 2014. “Why Norway’s prison system is so successful.” Business Insider. Retrieved April 1, 2017 (http://www.businessinsider.com/why-norways-prison-system-is-so-successful-2014-12).
Tonry, M. (1994). Race and the War on Drugs. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1994(1), 4th ser. Retrieved March 04, 2017, from http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1994/iss1/4
Varghese, F. P., E. E. Hardin, R. L. Bauer, and R. D. Morgan. 2009. “Attitudes Toward Hiring Offenders: The Roles of Criminal History, Job Qualifications, and Race.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 54(5):769–82.