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Give convicted terrorists voting rights? Why not fix the real problem?

In a CNN town hall event on Monday, a young Harvard student asked Sen. Bernie Sanders whether his position on allowing incarcerated criminals to vote means he supported enfranchising Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the convicted Boston Marathon Bomber.

Sanders unflinchingly affirmed his support for that idea, arguing that criminals are already paying their debt to society.

“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy,” Sanders said. “Even for terrible people. Because, once you start chipping away, . . . you’re running down a slippery slope.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, asked a similar question by Don Lemon, evaded the issue. “I think we should have that conversation,” she said.

Let’s have that conversation. There are a number of reasons why Sen. Sanders’ idea to enfranchise murderers, rapists, and terrorists is a bad one. I’ll give you two.

First, retribution is one of the primary aims of the criminal justice system. Crimes should reflect behavior that the community condemns. When someone is convicted of a crime, they owe a debt to that community. In some cases, they pay that debt by giving up most civil liberties.

By restoring more of these liberties, we undermine the retributive aim of the criminal law. We undermine the community’s power to condemn bad behavior. If someone harms the community, why would we give them a voice in how the community is governed?

In response, one might fairly argue that not all crimes reflect public attitudes about antisocial behavior. This brings us to the second reason allowing prisoners to vote is a terrible idea: it diverts attention away from the very real problem of overcriminalization.

Consider: in the state of South Calisota, selling widgets without a widget-dealer’s license is a felony punishable by up to 12 months in prison.

If South Calisotans think this punishment is unfair, which of the following approaches should they take?

  1. Demand to repeal the crime or decriminalize the behavior, thereby avoiding sending unlicensed widget dealers to prison.
  2. Demand to give voting rights to all inmates, including those who have brutally murdered South Calisotans for political or religious reasons.

This isn’t a difficult decision. One approach addresses the problem. The other approach is delusional.

Overcriminalization is a real problem, both in North Carolina and around the United States. But focusing on symptoms, like voting rights for convicted terrorists, won’t fix the problem.

Mike Schietzelt / Legal Fellow

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