By Cleveland Bell, Riverside House Executive Director
Achieving restorative justice is not something that happens over a few days, weeks, or even months. Our residents are with us 120 to 160 days, then we follow up with them for three years. Being committed to the long-term process is crucial to restore the lives of offenders and help them live successful lives after incarceration, which we talk about much more in our last blog post.
One area where we hope to make a difference this year is in voting rights restoration. It’s a big issue in our home state of Florida where there are 1.5 million offenders who cannot vote because of past incarceration. The law in only three states (Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana) says that once you lose the right, you never get it back.
Or, at least it’s very hard to get it back in a years long process known as executive clemency that has been called “arbitrary” and “unconstitutional.” Currently, an offender must apply to the governor and three cabinet members who only meet a couple of times of year to review the cases. (https://jldancecenter.com/) They can take up to seven years to approve or deny applications.
There has to be a better way, and one of our Riverside House graduates just finished a drive he has spearheaded over the last four years. He and his group gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in 2018. Hopefully, this will allow us to set up a better process for restoring voter rights for offenders who have completed their sentence.
Restored voting rights will help these offenders become a part of the community again. It puts them back in the system and gives them a legitimate voice. When a person is excluded from voting or denied other human rights, it creates an underclass. We already have enough of that, we don’t need to create another one.
We spend approximately $40,000 a year to keep a person in prison. From a purely business perspective, we’d all want to try to get that person into a position so they could help pay it back. Otherwise, they become part of an underground economy, which doesn’t serve our community as a whole. It doesn’t send a positive message to our kids. We have our pound of flesh, so let’s move on. It’s not a matter of being soft on crime, it’s a matter of being wise about it.
When it comes to this issue, we don’t need to get mad. When we get mad, we don’t get anything done. The answer and the truth of the matter is somewhere in the middle, but we have to be willing to listen, to talk to others and maybe even to get uncomfortable with the opinions of others. But all that effort will be worth it when we make progress and move forward.