Civil death, the practice of making a person ‘dead’ to the state (i.e., rescinding the right to vote) has roots all the way back to ancient civilization. The idea was that if a person’s crime was heinous enough to be punishable by death, then they should not be allowed to participate in community or government affairs as they go to their execution.
I’m sure that practice made sense to a lot of people 2000 years ago, but the terrain of criminal justice is remarkably different in current times. For one thing, many more people are convicted of crimes than are sentenced to death, and the severity of the punishment has more to do with political whim or the color of someone’s skin than it has to do with the seriousness of the crime. I’m referring to ex-President Nixon’s decision to criminalize Black people in order to reduce his opponents at the ballot box.
That trend has continued through many subsequent Presidents as evidenced by the fact that more than 95% of the people incarcerated in KY, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, are convicted by plea bargain arrangements constructed by white prosecutors.
For these people there is no jury, no public examination of proof, and no trial. Heinousness has not been established by any means other than perhaps pressure from a white prosecutor on a Black or Brown person yet due to the whims of lawmakers over the years, penalties continue to increase for less harmful crimes and the scope of what is convictable continues to broaden.
In fact, locking people up is a business industry in which many corporate entities profit whenever someone is put behind bars. This is no doubt the thinking behind the proposed Federal prison that is still being pushed on Letcher County residents by lawmakers.
All those people who are convicted of a crime for the purpose of capital or political gain (yes, we are talking about legal slavery in KY) are meted out a civil death as they go, permanently disenfranchised because they have been advised, pushed, or otherwise coerced to plead guilty without counsel on a very important legal implication of that plea.
Restoration of voting rights has been offered as a public safety strategy on the grounds that those who can vote are at lower risk for re-arrest than those who are barred from voting. It makes sense that people who are busy doing healthy things have less time and less inclination to engage in activities that are problematic. Civil death, for the vast majority of incarcerated people who are not sentenced to die, is an additional punishment unrelated to their crimes that is harmful to their rehabilitation and chances for re-entry into community life.
Civil death also now manifests in more than voter disenfranchisement. Released inmates face a tangled web of discrimination in housing, education, and employment applications that require information about criminal records, making community re-entry a complex and difficult task. Amazingly, some people are able to navigate these barriers, to further their education, and to find and keep gainful employment. These people should be celebrated for their strength of character, not labelled a felon or ex-felon and denied a voice at the ballot box.
Those who are successfully walking such a difficult path no doubt have insights into problems that the rest of us can’t see. We hurt ourselves by not allowing them to contribute their hard-earned knowledge.
We need to stop building new prisons, and start investing in healthy community activities such as education, interesting employment opportunities, and government participation.
Civil death is no longer appropriate and needs to be eradicated.