Monday, March 13, 2017 | 2 a.m.
What’s fair punishment for a felony?
Today, Nevada is one of only 12 states that considers it the loss of one of the most cherished American liberties — the right to vote — even after an offender is released from prison and has gotten off of parole.
That’s overly punitive. It’s also counterproductive, because it adds to a long list of challenges for felons to reintegrate into society.
That’s why a bill in the Nevada Legislature to restore voting rights for felons is a welcomed piece of legislation.
Assembly Bill 181 would allow Category A and Category B felons to vote after they’re released from prison. For those who are convicted of Category C or lower offenses, the right to vote is already restored upon release.
The thrust of the proposal is to help show offenders there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Do your time, stay clean, and you’ll be able to vote. In addition, the bill allows felons to serve on juries in civil trials.
Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, the bill’s leading proponent and a former public defender, told an Assembly committee last week that another aim of the bill was to reduce recidivism.
“I think that the more barriers we put up to re-entry, the more difficult we make it for ex-offenders who’ve paid their debt to society,” Frierson said. “There are many barriers that impede ex-offenders already. They have spotty work histories and low education levels; they often struggle with substance abuse and mental illness.
“But these individuals have paid their debt to society, and restoring the right to vote is critical to the process of reintegration.”
Frierson said an estimated 6.1 million Americans were disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. That’s about 2.5 percent of the population, and the total has risen from 3.3 million in 1996. In Nevada, Frierson said, about 90,000 offenders have lost their voting rights.
As is the case with the prison population overall, blacks are affected at a disproportionate rate by disenfranchisement related to their offense.
There is a petition process for felons to get their rights restored. But it’s difficult to navigate for someone without a lawyer, and given that many felons struggle to make ends meet — try getting a job with a felony conviction on your record — the process is beyond their means.
The bill would simplify the process by ending the distinction between honorable discharges from probation and dishonorable ones. A dishonorable discharge, which results in long-term loss of voting rights, can happen for various reasons, but proponents of the bill say it occurs most often because a felon has been unable to pay fees.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans are pushing back against the bill, saying that Category A and B felonies are the most violent crimes on the books and suggesting violators no longer deserve to vote.
But it’s important to note that some of those felonies are nonviolent crimes, and there would be strings attached for offenders under the bill. Parole violators and recidivists would again be denied the right to vote.
“AB181 is not designed to give criminals a break,” Frierson said.
Rather, it’s aimed at sending an aspirational message to felons — you’ve done your time, and you matter as an American. It’s not difficult to see why that might motivate offenders to stay out of trouble.
Improving public safety and encouraging the right to vote: That’s a win for everyone.