Several good books dealing with the American penal system and its effects on other aspects of American society are slated to appear this year. The first of them has just been published. Locked Out, by Jeff Manza and Chris Uggen examines the consequences of felon disenfranchisement laws for political participation and electoral outcomes. As might be expected, the United States puts much stronger restrictions than most Western countries on the voting rights of those currently imprisoned, on parole or probation, as well as on those who have served their sentences. When coupled with the fact that the U.S. has a relatively enormous segment of its population in prison, such laws may have political effects in themselves, as well as reflecting some of the deep effects of mass incarceration in modern American society. Here’s a map (from Chris’s website) showing felon disenfranchisement laws by state (for 2004).
In the book, Manza and Uggen find that about 5.3 million people were affected by these laws as of the November 2004 election. Of these, two million were African-American. In several states, as many as one in four black men is ineligible to vote. An earlier article by the authors estimate that felon disenfranchisement is large enough to affect national elections when they are close: felons make up about 2.5 percent of the U.S. voting-age population (a steady upward trend from just under one percent in 1976). But there’s not much political hay to be made about this—who wants to say “70 percent of felons vote Democratic”? The racial history of these laws is more important: they are largely the outcome of racial conflict during Reconstruction. Moreover, according to the authors public opinion polls suggest 80 percent of Americans are in favor of allowing convicted felons to vote once they have completed their sentences. (Only a third are in favor of allowing prisoners to vote.)
Chris Uggen also has a good blog, incidentally. Today, for instance, I learned from him that students convicted of rape (for example) remain eligible for federal financial aid, but students convicted of misdemeanor drug possession are automatically ineligible. Anyway, I recommend the book.