by Theodore Hamm | February 2012
Over the past decade the issue of whether former prisoners should regain their full rights of citizenship has moved to the forefront of criminal justice debates. “Jarvious Cotton cannot vote,” reads the opening sentence of Michelle Alexander’s best-selling work The New Jim Crow. Cotton is on parole in Louisiana, one of many states that deny former prisoners the right to vote. Somewhat unexpectedly, the issue of felon disenfranchisement also surfaced briefly in one of the Republican debates in South Carolina, with Rick Santorum peppering Mitt Romney with questions about the latter’s position. Whether there will be resolution of the problem is unclear, but at least it has become part of the national discussion.
Closer to home, the expansion of the criminal justice system is quietly threatening other rights of citizenship, namely those guaranteed by the First Amendment. As seen most recently in the Occupy protests, the overzealous approach of theN.Y.P.D. at any and all demonstrations greatly enhances the possibility of arrests. And for those caught up in the criminal justice system in any way—whether they face a bench warrant, have an arrest record, or are on probation or parole—staying away from protest events is a safer bet. The degree to which this results in a de facto constraint on the First Amendment is an open question.
Sean Barry, director of VOCAL-NY, says that the “fear of police contact is a major problem for us.” VOCAL (Voices of Community Advocates & Leaders) mobilizes low-income city residents to protest against the drug war and other aspects of the criminal justice system, and its members include many people with criminal records. As Barry argues, “the perceived risk in going to a rally creates a chilling effect,” keeping many people away from such events. “Our members on parole are most concerned,” he adds.
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