Prisoners or Pariahs: Why HB 1872 Should Be Passed

By Sidney Davis III

The proposed House Bill 1872 (HB1872) seeks to strike from the IL Elections Code the rules preventing people currently serving time in prison from voting in elections.  There are several reasons why this provision should be stricken from our state laws.

While we have agreed in the social contract that a felony conviction is a determination that an offender has committed a crime against the state–which requires compensatory penalties up to and including the loss of freedoms, certain privileges, and in some cases life itself,–voting is a right of citizenship in the USA. That should never be lost, regardless of the actions of a citizen.

Section 1 of the 15th Amendment clearly states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Because a citizen becomes a prisoner, do they become a pariah?

Section 1. of the 13th Amendment: “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.”

The United States’ constitution is clear. States can take many rights from citizens as a result of their criminal conduct, even returning them to a state of slavery or involuntary servitude. But, nowhere is it stated or implied that the commission and conviction of a crime is sufficient to revoke the basic right of citizenship, voting. 

These two clauses of the United States constitution make enforcement of 10 ILCS 5/3-5 as currently written problematic for a host of reasons.

  1. The Constitution of the State of Illinois allows people with convictions to run for and hold office, but disallows them to vote in the election in which they are a candidate.  Does that make sense? 

While the rule bars holding office while under the control of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), it also leads to a situation where my recently released cellmate can be placed in a position to harm me—a fellow citizen–and I have little to no recourse against his actions. If someone in prison can be released on a Monday, and be elected the following Tuesday, where is the sense in denying incarcerated people the right to vote? What is the subtle difference that makes it fine for me to run for elected office as a freed person with a previous conviction, but denies my still serving former cellmate of a week ago to reject my petition to serve the people? Unless the sole purpose of the provision is citizen disenfranchisement. To reiterate a problem with 10 ILCS 5/35 and its intention to disenfranchise, it allows me, someone with a previous conviction, to run and be elected but prevents me from voting for myself in the election.

  1. The voting process in Illinois is not restricted to only officeholder elections. Illinois is a voter referendum state, allowing ballot initiatives at the state, county, and municipal levels that will affect the environment of a newly released individual. In a sense, 10 ILCS 5/3-5 prevents an incarcerated person from exercising his rights as a citizen to voice his opinion on a “quality of life” issue that can affect his future incarceration prospects, deny her housing, or prevent their children from receiving a proper education, which will keep them out of the prison pipeline. 

A brief list of recent initiatives which affected the post-incarceration lives of citizen-prisoners and will have a profound impact on their post-release lives.  

In 2014, these initiatives were on the ballot: 

  1. Right to Vote Amendment: Provided that no person shall be denied the right to register and vote. My testimony on HB1872 is prima facie evidence of the proof of this need.
  1. The Minimum Wage Increase Question: If I went to jail because my minimum wage job only gave me enough money to launch my “pharmaceutical sales” business but not enough to support my family, would it not be in the interest of all citizens of IL that my citizen-prisoner voice be heard on this issue? Could not a higher minimum wage help dilute my chances of recidivism, provided that the stigma of a felony conviction doesn’t prevent me from getting hired?
  1. Millionaire Tax Increase for Education Question: If my underfunded, underperforming education system was a contributing factor in my becoming a prisoner, why should my incarceration preclude me from using my voice as a citizen to change the way the system is funded?

In 2020, the graduated income tax initiative was on the ballot.  This initiative would not only affect my quality of life as a currently incarcerated individual, but also create a new economic environment upon my release as a citizen. I know prisons are meant to be a harsh deterrent, but no one deserves ground beef stew with “six-legged almonds”–neither the people in prison, nor the citizens of Illinois who annually pay between $25,000 and $75,000 per person in prison for their upkeep. 

We won’t even mention the 2018 Marijuana Legalization Advisory Question. I’m certain that the over 700 IDOC controlled people with marijuana convictions in 2017 would have loved to have a say on this ballot initiative. This becomes especially apparent when you consider that House Bill 1438 subsequently decriminalized marijuana in the state, leading to over a half a million criminal record expungements for marijuana convictions.

I return to the question of Prisoner or Pariah?

If Christianity allows a deathbed confession to wipe away the sins of a lifetime; if the purpose of incarceration is punishment, prevention and redemption; the commission of a felony should not allow the creation of pariahs to the social contract. If the purpose of incarceration is to throw away the person forever, then we may as well move to capital punishment for all offenses.

However, if reformation of the citizen and reduction of prisoner recidivism is a goal of the Illinois penal system, then disenfranchising citizens because of their current incarcerated status is clearly a bad idea. The status quo will further exacerbate the incarceration problem in our state and those that are caught up in it will have no chance to affect the broken system which set them on the path of self and social destruction. What better time and place than prison to properly educate citizens on how to behave like one.

This is the supreme benefit of the passage of HB1872. It will allow people convicted of a crime to serve their time, while at the same time, learn how to use their voices as citizens of the United States and the State of Illinois to shape the world to which they will return. By giving the most affected the opportunity to use their voices in a way that can reduce future costs to the citizens of Illinois through the reduction of our prison population, all the citizens of Illinois will benefit.

Prisoners or pariahs? The choice is yours.

I strongly urge you to support HB1872.