Paying Your Debt to Society

Should Felons VoteIn Response to Steve, Generic White Guy Who Always Says This (Regarding the Right to Vote after a Felony Conviction):

“You broke the law, you got caught. You do not deserve to vote until you have paid your debt to society.”

I have heard this time and time again, on the subway, at parties, from friends. This statement will get 30-odd likes in the New York Times’ comment section. When I hear this, I try to acknowledge the apparent logic of this statement and begin to talk through the possible pitfalls of such an unconditional punitive approach given the current state of our criminal justice system. Here, I want to break it down another way. This is for Steve, the guy who stands tall and proud because he thinks being tough on crime—other people’s crimes—equates with moral integrity.

Listen, Steve, given the present condition of the criminal justice system, your statement above overtly supports a white supremacist ideology, or at best, supports the position that society should punish poverty. Sorry, Steve, you either hate black and brown people or poor people (or both). Fine, you probably do not hate either, but you just haven’t thought this through before. (Remarkable, given how cocksure of yourself you were a minute ago!)

People of color are disproportionately convicted of crimes and subsequently disenfranchised at much higher rates than whites. This is because (1) whites are inherently less criminal than people of color, that is, they commit fewer crimes than people of color independent of socioeconomic conditions; or (2) whites are inherently better at avoiding being caught breaking the law.

Right? Or, it could be one of a couple more benign answers: (3) Whites commit fewer crimes than people of color because whites on average experience social and socioeconomic privilege which decreases the necessity or attractiveness of criminal activity, or (4) whites are less likely to be caught breaking the law because they are less likely to be geographically or personally targeted by law enforcement.

These are the options.

If you believe current disparities result from (1) or (2), you are explicitly espousing traditional white supremacist ideology: whites are simply better or more intelligent than people of color. The third and fourth premises are more interesting: if you acknowledge either (3) or (4), and still support the statement above then you support the punishment of poverty. Using your unconditionally punitive line of logic, while acknowledging that race and/or poverty were essential factors in an individual’s conviction (that is, that whiteness and wealth would mitigate many of these convictions) is to support a system which systematically targets people of color and/or the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Therefore, if you acknowledge (3) or (4) and maintain this position, you might not support white supremacy, but at the very least you think that society should disproportionately punish poor people.

If, after reading this, you are dissatisfied with the systemic inequality in the system and would like the law to be more equitably enforced, there is a democratic way to make your voice heard: voting. And guess what? There are about 5.85 million American citizens who are overwhelmingly likely to agree with you! But…they can’t vote, because they have a felony conviction.

Does more equitable law enforcement sound good? Logically, just looking at the stats, we will have to target wealthy people and white people more or target poor people and people of color less (I lean towards the latter, but hey, we’re talking about you). Think about it, Steve. Remember that joint you smoked with Brad last week? Do you deserve to be locked up for chillin’ with your bros and watching Grandma’s boy? Perhaps, instead, you should tweak your statement a bit so that it acknowledges that many of the people who “broke the law” were non-violent offenders, many were just smoking pot (like our last three sitting presidents), many are now supporting their families and paying taxes, and ALL of them are humans, who have the right to participate in our democracy.

Levi LaChappelleAlright, Steve, thanks for listening. See you at the office. If you want to read more about this, please check out info from The Sentencing Project, Jamelle Bouie’s great piece The Ex-Con Factor from The American Prospect, or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

To everyone else, if someone tries to get Steve’s argument past you, please break it down for them.

Levi LaChappelle

Levi LaChappelle is completing his PhD in Criminology, Law & Society at the University of California, Irvine. Follow him on Twitter: @raceandpolitics


  1. duitdon says

    Steve, evidence will not convince you to remember why we have society. We work together to create a climate where all members have a place to exist, like in the pursuit of happiness. You want to live in a jungle like our animal friends then live by the rules where each person makes his own rules. You don’t like someone you eat him. We haven’t gone far from that ideal: the rigid ideal of the survival of the fittest. Do you really want the kill the less fit. Are your fit to judge? It doesn’t sound like it.

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