The Impact of Sexual Assault on Justice-Involved Women Guest Contributor: Hallie Williams*
It is undeniable that both men and women are affected by sexual assault, but it is indisputable that women are disproportionately affected. To be precise, in the United States, there are 433,648 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018). A staggering 1 in 6 women will be victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, while the statistic for men is 1 in 33 (National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 1998). No matter who the victims are, these numbers are far too high to call the United States a “safe” country. People intended to be protected by the government frequently end up harmed and thrown into a cycle of violence that dramatically alters the trajectory of their lives. For women involved in the justice system, they have been among the most susceptible to sexual abuse or likely to have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. Our community and justice system must do better to protect them from harm.
Assault can psychologically impact survivors for their whole life. Many survivors live with the invisible pain. There is an increased risk of suicide and depressive thoughts among survivors, autoimmune disease, and an increased risk of drug use or dependence (Kilpatrick, 1992). A survivor’s brain can put itself in a constant state of fight or flight. This continued increase of adrenaline and cortisol wears down the body. A continuous state of stress and fear makes the body weak and puts survivors at increased risk for autoimmune diseases like Multiple Sclerosis and Lupus (Striebel, 2021). In addition, adverse childhood experiences (ACE), including sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence, significantly impact the survivor’s mental health, well-being, and future (Kilpatrick et al., 2000). An ACE score of 6 or more may affect one’s life expectancy up to 20 years. Over 90% of women served at the Center for Women in Transition have experienced trauma, including sexual violence, in their lives; the average ACE score for clients at the Center is 5.62. Another example of an adverse childhood experience is a parent with a substance use disorder; this puts children at risk of suffering from a substance use disorder later in their own lives, which incarcerated women are more likely to report experiencing (Roxburgh and MacArthur, 2018). These traumas experienced throughout one’s life put them at risk for experiencing more trauma and creates a cycle of violence, and frequently, sexual abusers have experienced abuse themself (Streibel, 2021). Each adverse experience puts the person at risk of experiencing more trauma and builds a fragile foundation for raising their children in a similarly hostile environment. Survivors need to be believed and heard, and they need resources to help them heal.
Silencing and victim-blaming are highly harmful because survivors often do not receive support after their assault. This culture of disbelief has kept survivors from reporting their assault. An estimated 65% of sexual assault goes unreported (U.S. Department of Justice, 2011). During Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court Justice nomination hearings in 2018, many survivors witnessed the most powerful legal institution uphold this societal culture of disbelief. To confront one’s abuser is extremely challenging, and to do so in front of the entire country took immense courage that empowered many survivors around the world. A more supportive society needs to exist for survivors to tell their stories without being questioned and blamed. It should be easier for survivors to tell their story and gain support no matter if the assault just happened or if it happened in the past. Assault is never the survivor’s fault, but they continue to take the blame, especially if their assailant is in a position of power. If survivors felt believed or had a support system to rely on, the trajectory of their lives could look immensely different. Sexual assault can spark a cycle of violence that puts survivors at an increased risk of substance use, mental health issues, and incarceration (Wolff, Shi & Siegel, 2009). It is possible that if these women felt heard, they could have avoided imprisonment and other dangers. A culture of believing survivors could combat these adverse effects.
Not only is sexual assault a pervasive issue on the outside, but it also exists inside U.S. prisons and jails. A study performed on 148 corrections officers found that officers who demonstrated more sexual bias and victim-blaming toward inmates disagreed with the empirical definition of sexual assault (Sharp, 2021). This data was collected through the corrections officers completing the Risk Factors for Prison Rape survey. The study also found that male corrections officers were more likely to exhibit victim-blaming and not believe allegations of sexual assault. If the people in charge at these facilities are not listening to survivors and taking them seriously, it creates a dangerous environment because sexual assault is an attack on both body and mind, and they are at further risk of experiencing repeated sexual assault. Since the ratification of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, progress has been made to protect incarcerated people from sexual assault. Still, these traumatic experiences persist, and reporting them oftentimes gets people put in solitary confinement, which can also be highly damaging. In this case, a system intended to help and protect has done the opposite. Incarcerated people have higher rates of particular infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and behavioral disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression (Wolff, Shi & Siegel, 2009). More reform is needed in U.S. prisons and the justice system to create a comfortable and habitable place for people to feel safe and eventually return to society. Further than reform, alternatives to incarceration puts fewer people at risk to the dangers of sexual assault in prison and contribute to a more just justice system.
Women are painfully aware of assault statistics; they cross parking lots in fear, don’t jog at night, and always check their back seat. Instead of continually reminding women of these dangers, we need to educate men on assault statistics. Men are the perpetrators of 90% of violent crimes in the U.S., and the portrayal of men being manly through violence is to blame (Katz, 1999). Our culture needs to change to make society a safer place for women. When someone makes a misogynist joke in our everyday lives, and we laugh and go along, we strengthen this culture that puts women down. When we disbelieve survivors of sexual assault, we contribute to the culture of disbelief: the population’s behaviors and opinions shape society. We must choose the less traveled path and stand up and stop sexist and disbelieving behavior when we encounter it; this is the only way to incite change in the justice system, workplace, and classroom. When someone says the joke was offensive and not funny, the person who made it will begin to see the error of their ways, and a change will begin. When someone puts faith in and believes a survivor of sexual assault, they will feel safe and heard, and their cycle of violence can be interrupted. Implementing support systems for survivors can help them move on from their trauma; they need someone to tell them everything will be okay. Societal change must happen before we see a change in representative media and legislature. The U.S. has a problem with sexual assault, but we can start to make a change in our communities that will contribute to the end of rape culture, society’s eventual betterment, and a safer place for everyone.
*Hallie Williams is a student at Saint Louis University and volunteer at the Center for Women in Transition.
Climate change doesn’t just cause rising sea levels, extreme weather, and endangered species. This Earth Day, we’re raising awareness about the way climate change creates environmental injustices for many vulnerable populations, including justice-involved women. Oftentimes we talk about climate change as an issue on its own. But it is interconnected with the many challenges our world faces, including the challenge we tackle in our agency’s work—the growing rates of incarceration and its impact on women. Fueled by racism and white supremacy unreckoned within this country, environmental injustices only exacerbate the devastation of putting people behind bars. We have a lot to solve and a lot to do, but let’s start by acknowledging a simple truth: Protecting the planet protects women.
Environmental justice describes a movement to recognize how environmental hazards primarily impact low-income communities and Latino, Black, Asian, and Indigenous communities. The environmental harm these communities experience are augmented by the detrimental impacts of the criminal justice system. Renowned geographer and carceral studies scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore shares a story in the epilogue of her 2007 book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California told by Juana Gutierrez, the founder of a group called Mothers of East Los Angeles. Gutierrez pointed out that many individuals who end up in prisons have a past of missing or not finishing school. She said many kids missed school because they were sick from asthma caused by harsh pollution that is characteristic of the Greater Los Angeles area. The story calls on us to ask questions about what truly are the root causes of crime. We must move towards a realization that various factors in a person’s living environment change their life in ways that are rarely, if ever, considered in the criminal justice system.
How do environmental injustices show up in Missouri? In Saint Louis County alone, there are five of what the Environmental Protection Agency terms “Superfund sites”, or environmentally hazardous and toxic sites that are dangerous for the public and require extensive cleanup measures. As we stall action on addressing climate change and the environmental disasters it brings, more and more children and families in the U.S. will be dealing with its irreversible damages. While it is difficult to trace the environmental lineage of every person that is incarcerated in the U.S. to determine how it could have impacted their life, we are still able to see how environmental injustices are impacting them right at this very moment.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, across the United States there are almost 600 prisons and jails within 3 miles of a Superfund site. Investigative reports have revealed that many of those who are imprisoned at these facilities have suffered severe health issues. A facility in Pennsylvania had eighty percent of individuals incarcerated there exposed to coal ash from a nearby site. Now, advocacy campaigns are popping up to stop these so-called “toxic prisons” and to raise awareness of the deeply tangled issues of environmental injustice and injustice in the criminal legal system.
The serious environmental concerns of the U.S. prisons do not stop there. A recent study by a legal scholar at Columbia University documented the horrid heat conditions in prisons happening as a result of climate change. After the study was published, PBS did an investigative piece on conditions inside several prisons impacted by Hurricane Harvey and the extreme heat of the summer of 2018. The stories coming from those incarcerated are harrowing and very difficult to read, but they importantly show the world the inhumane treatment happening right beneath our eyes. After years of activists pushing for its closure, the Workhouse in St. Louis, a facility also cited for its inhumane conditions and sweltering heat in which many of our clients have endured, will finally be shut down for good this year.
Almost every single woman we have served at the Center for Women in Transition lives below 20% the annual median income. Environmental injustices are occurring in some of the poorest communities in our country. From birth to behind bars, climate change has unjustly altered the lives of millions of formerly and currently incarcerated individuals. Protecting the planet is one step towards breaking the carceral cycle. Protecting the planet protects justice-involved women on their path to recovery and success.
Black History Month: Six Black Leaders in Criminal Justice Reform
This Black History Month, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge the immense contributions Black Americans have made to the fight for freedom, equality, and justice. Indeed, the principles and establishment of our agency are greatly indebted to the work of Black activists, abolitionists, and scholars who have pushed for an end to mass incarceration and have proposed alternatives to incarceration for centuries.
The carceral system in the United States has been used to oppress and harm Black communities. Black people have been over-policed for centuries. In The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander details the history of how slavery, replaced by Jim Crow, became the United States’ current system of mass incarceration: “Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans…As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
As a reentry organization, we can’t ignore the fact that the same racist policies and systems that incarcerate Black people at disproportionate rates also make it harder for Black people to reenter society post-release. Black justice-involved women face more discrimination upon reentry than white women, including higher unemployment rates and lower median incomes.
Many Black activists, scholars, lawyers, and leaders, past and present, have written extensively about the history and impact of the ways in which incarceration and racism are intertwined, and they provide us with insight into the problems and possible paths forward. Here are some voices across the spectrum of criminal justice reform and prison abolition that are important to know and recognize for their contributions to reform efforts.
1. Angela Davis (1944-present) Angela Davis is a political activist, prison abolitionist, philosopher, and Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Among many accomplishments, Angela Davis co-founded (along with Ruth Wilson Gilmore) Critical Resistance, a grassroots campaign to build support around ending the prison-industrial complex. In her still relevant 1998 essay “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex,” Dr. Davis writes: “Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the social problems that burden people who are ensconced in poverty. These problems often are veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the category “crime” and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior to people of color.”
2. Bryan Stevenson (1959-present) Bryan Stevenson, Esq., is the Founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based human rights organization. Mr. Stevenson has argued and won numerous cases in the Supreme Court challenging unfair sentencing, including a 2012 ruling banning life sentences without parole for children under 17. He and his staff have won reversals, reliefs, or releases for over 135 wrongly condemned people on death row. In 2018, he opened the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice to educate the public and honor the lives of those who have suffered from slavery, lynching, and mass incarceration. Read Bryan Stevenson’s bestseller, Just Mercy, and watch the movie starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.
3. Ruth Wilson Gilmore(1950-present) Ruth Wilson Gilmore is a professor of Geography and director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the City University of New York and a prison abolitionist. Dr. Gilmore invented the study of “carceral geography,” which examines the complex relationships between institutions, spaces, and the political economy to control populations. Dr. Gilmore co-founded Critical Resistance alongside Angela Davis, a grassroots organization that aims to dismantle the prison industrial complex. Dr. Gilmore asks, “Instead of asking whether anyone should be locked up or go free, why don’t we think about why we solve problems by repeating the kind of behavior that brought us the problem in the first place?”Read more about her work on prison abolition and carceral geography or listen to her speak about abolition on the Intercepted podcast.
4. Dollree Mapp(1923-2014) Dollree Mapp has been called “The Rosa Parks of the Fourth Amendment” for her role in the Supreme Court case Mapp v. Ohio in 1961. The ruling requires that state courts must throw out evidence if it was obtained illegally. Prior to the ruling, it was common for police to enter the homes of Black people illegally and violently to instill widespread fear and social control across Black communities without any legal ramifications. Unfortunately, Black communities continue to be unfairly and often illegally policed today. Ms. Mapp continued advocating for herself and others; while serving time in prison, she successfully organized incarcerated individuals and advocates on the outside to oppose mandatory minimum sentencing laws that were eventually rolled back as a result. Upon her release, she worked for a non-profit organization that provided legal assistance to people who were incarcerated. .
5. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)(1925-1965) & John Elton Bembry (Bimbe)(1912-1989) While el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (known as Malcolm X) spent time in Norfolk prison in his 20s, he spoke and wrote extensively on abolishing capital punishment, creating humane conditions for people in prison, and the connections between racism and incarceration. El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz went on to be a prominent leader in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, positively impacting the lives of millions. One of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz’s formative mentors and teachers was John Elton Bembry, nicknamed Bimbe, who he met during their time in state prison. Prior to meeting el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, John Elton Bembry led a work strike in the prison to get more food and better conditions. John Elton Bembry introduced el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz to Thoreau and the resources of the prison library, and he encouraged el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz to share his voice with the world.
6. Local St. Louis Leaders The foundation of criminal justice reform and prison abolition work doesn’t come from academics philosophizing about change; it’s personal and local, and happening on the ground in St. Louis right now. We celebrate the work and voices of Black leaders in St. Louis working for change in our community.
Many of these leaders are working from their own personal experiences. Barbara Baker, the Center for Women in Trasnsition’s Advocacy Director, has been advocating for alternatives to incarceration for the past 20 years. She also advocates for local and state legislation to reduce the barriers women face upon release, like Senate Bill 61 that reduces barriers to expungements of felonies, and the Primary Caretakers Bill, which provides alternatives to incarceration for primary caretakers of minors. Ms. Baker uses her own experience of being incarcerated for over 15 years to help others. Tracy Stanton, a Center Board member and program graduate, is a bail disruptor for people held in St. Louis jails through the Bail Project, and is an organizer for the St. Louis EXPO chapter (Ex-incarcerated People Organizing) to end mass incarceration. Inez Bordeaux has been a leading advocate for the Close the Workhouse campaign to stop the inhumane and racist conditions she and others have experienced there.
Other leaders, including Kayla Reed of Action STL, Jae Shepherd of Close the Workhouse, Blake Strode of Arch City Defenders, and many more, have also courageously led the fight to close the Workhouse, as well as other efforts to end mass incarceration, unfair policing, and systemic racism in St. Louis. Additionally, we celebrate the work of government leaders who are making efforts to reform the criminal justice system, including Kim Gardner, the first African American circuit attorney in St. Louis City, and Wesley Bell, the first Black prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County, who have both worked to decriminalize nonviolent offenses.
The criminal justice system and the racism that defines it can feel like huge, impossible systemic challenges to confront. Yet, these Black local and national leaders help shed light on the changes that need to be made and provide a path to make that change happen. You, too, can get involved by listening and learning from these leaders, and by volunteering with and supporting these local organizations.
Free but Disenfranchised: Why We Still Don’t Have Votes for (All) Women By Laura Toledo, Executive Director of the Center for Women in Transition
Free but Disenfranchised: Why We Still Don't Have Votes for (All) Women 
"Just because we've committed a crime, doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to vote. I've paid my dues. I want to be a good citizen, and voting comes along with that," a client at the Center for Women in Transition, Tammy Robinson, said.
As we go into the 2020 election, it is estimated that 5.2 million American citizens with a felony conviction are unable to vote, which is equivalent to 1 in 44 Americans . The United States is one of the only democracies left in the world that denies the right to vote to people who are currently or formerly incarcerated. But the long practice of denying voting rights to American citizens with felonies is not often questioned. Now is the time to consider anew when, if ever, voting rights of American citizens should be taken away. When one uncovers the history of disenfranchisement and its connection to systemic racism in the criminal justice system, voter suppression, and gerrymandering, it becomes hard to justify the laws restricting voting rights.
Each state has different laws on disenfranchisement for folks with felony convictions. In only two states and one territory—Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.—voting rights are never taken away from anyone based on a felony conviction, even for those currently incarcerated. Three states—Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia—permanently bar people with felony records from voting, and another eight states permanently disenfranchise some categories of felons. Most states’ laws are somewhere in the middle, barring people from voting for a limited period of time, generally either for the period a person is incarcerated or until completion of probation or parole, sometimes with a requirement that fees and restitution are paid.
In Missouri, which ranks 28th out of 50 in restoration laws, voting rights are restored to felons after completion of their entire sentence, including probation or parole. Disenfranchisement for people with a felony conviction in Missouri has affected almost 90,000 people, about 2% of the voting age population.
Although some strides have been made to change disenfranchisement laws for people with felonies, for many justice-involved folks and advocates, reforms must ensure that every citizen’s voice can be heard at the ballot box. For Tracy Stanton, a Board Member with the Center for Women in Transition, a Bail Disruptor at the Bail Project, and an organizer with EXPO-MO (Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing-Missouri), the way the U.S. treats people who have been involved with the criminal justice system is not surprising considering the “horrific circumstances that this country was built on, off of the back of stolen people.”
In fact, there is a long history in this country of disenfranchising Black Americans. There’s no denying the racial disparities of incarcerated folks in the United States; it has been well-documented, discussed, and criticized by many, including Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Ava DuVernay, director of 13th .
Here is a graph from the Sentencing Project showing the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration on Black and Latino Americans:
Source: The Sentencing Project. “Trends in US Corrections.” 2020. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/trends-in-u-s-corrections/
These racial disparities are not an accident; they reflect one form of voter suppression that has been in effect since the beginning of our country and which has grown as other forms of suppression have been held unconstitutional. Now, in a time when our country is collectively considering what it means to be anti-racist, we must acknowledge the racist underpinnings of the felony disenfranchisement laws, which helped to create the modern era of mass incarceration.
History of Disenfranchisement for People with Prior Convictions According to the Sentencing Project, taking away the right to vote from people with a criminal record is a practice referred to as “civil death” brought over by English colonizers to North America. However, disenfranchisement only applied to crimes involving voting and limited other crimes. Americans expanded the concept to serve elitist and racist goals, first to respond to the elimination of the property test for voting after the Revolution, and then after the Civil War to respond to the end of slavery.
Despite the patent manipulation of the “civil death” concept to achieve political ends aimed at impoverished and Black communities, in 1974, the Supreme Court in Richardson v. Ramirez ruled that voting rights for people convicted of a felony crime are not protected under Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states the right to vote cannot be denied “except for participation in rebellion, or other crime.”
In the 6-3 majority opinion by Justice Rehnquist, voting rights revocation was held to be constitutional based on a number of factors, including the intent of the legislators who drafted the Fourteenth Amendment and precedent. This section of the 14th Amendment is usually referred to as the provision that ensures “one person, one vote,” and together with the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, was meant to ensure full equality, including voting and representation rights, to former enslaved persons. (Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment specifically discriminated against women, however, and it was not until ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment that white women were guaranteed the right to vote.) Ever since the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment has provided a useful loophole for silencing politically unpopular voices. In fact, by 1870 when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, 28 states had already passed laws disenfranchising people convicted of felonies. Today, all but 2 states have some version of these laws.
These laws have disproportionately suppressed Black people from voting. According to the Sentencing Project, in 2016 while 2.47% of the total voting age population were disenfranchised, 7.44% of African Americans were disenfranchised.
Recently, Sara Baker, Policy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri, discussed the racial disparities of disenfranchisement for people with a felony conviction:
“Our criminal justice system is already riddled with such racial injustice that it would be impossible not for that to perpetuate into the voting system,” said Ms. Baker. “We try to connect these two on the idea that if you've been incarcerated, then there are suddenly additional limitations, but on your voting rights, so I think they mirror each other. You see absolute echoes of the racism in the criminal justice system in the voting system as well.”
Those who support removing voting rights of citizens with felonies may be unaware of this history, and they often rely on arguments that these laws are justifiable as a punishment, as a deterrent, or because of the justice-involved individuals’‘moral failings’ and disregard of Rousseau’s ideation of a social contract. But for the vast majority of people who are incarcerated in this country, they are coming from communities of poverty and communities of color, which are less likely to vote in the first place due to systematic voting barriers. And punishment for crimes is dictated by criminal statutes and sentences imposed by judges. Disenfranchisement laws are like other collateral consequences of incarceration--barriers that make successful reintegration into community more difficult and amount to extended, sometimes life-long, non-judicial punishments.
Our country’s oversized prison population is not reserved for the most morally corrupt individuals. In fact, our prisons largely house people who suffer from mental illness, severe trauma, and substance use disorders, who come from communities where the social contract does not seem to apply. One could say they are inadvertently playing their role in the social contract by removing themselves from participation in democratic decision making. Even assuming that most people with felony convictions have committed a crime that calls for a criminal consequence, it does not automatically follow that there should be voting rights consequences. The only crimes that seem self-evidently to call for such consequences are voter fraud and treason, but almost all disenfranchisement laws go far beyond this.
And people who are incarcerated are contributing citizens, even while they are in prison. In fact, our country relies on inmate labor for a wide variety of products and services, for which incarcerated people are paid essentially nothing. We should be concerned by how closely our modern prison system echoes the structure of slavery, with people who are incarcerated providing near-free labor without rights to participate in our representative democracy.
“When you get incarcerated….you still contribute to society by way of labor. Right now, there's currently people that are fighting the [forest] fires that are incarcerated. They get paid $2 a day. Because you know, the 13th Amendment says….you're not a slave unless you're incarcerated, and you can still get free labor. So, you still contribute to society.” said Ms. Stanton. “A bad decision can lead you to stay in prison. Right? So, does that mean you're just this horrible person? Are you still not human? Are you not someone that just made a mistake? I personally believe that you shouldn't lose your right to vote, you don't lose your citizenship.”
Although current, and in some states formerly, incarcerated people are not able to vote, their bodies are counted in the drawing of state and local electoral districts where they are imprisoned. This dilutes representation in their home districts while increasing the population for election districts in the rural areas where they are incarcerated. This occurs because the U.S. census counts incarcerated individuals as residents of their place of incarceration--largely in rural areas where prisons are located, rather than in their last residence prior to incarceration--which are more likely to be urban areas, and states use the census data to draw their districts. Although this blatant practice of skewing representation towards whiter, more conservative, rural areas is the subject of constitutional challenge, only nine states have passed laws to end it.
In summary, history has shown that removing voting rights from people with felonies has created numerous perverse incentives, including targeting certain groups for criminal prosecution and encouraging the development of more prisons in rural areas in part to bolster rural electoral districts. Both of these practices contribute to some degree to the explosion of incarceration in this country, which in turn, has most damaged poor folks, Black Americans, and people with disabilities and has left those with records with a lifetime of hurdles to successful reentry. These same individuals and communities are not able to use their voting power to address injustices that impact them, or to push for criminal justice reforms. It is not surprising that politicians respond to “tough on crime”-minded constituents when those directly impacted by tough-on-crime legislation are not constituents at all because they have no right to vote.
There is little evidence of any benefit to America from felony disenfranchisement, or that American democracy would suffer if people with felony records were allowed to vote. Evidence does show, however, that having a high level of community ties and civic engagement reduces the likelihood of criminal behavior. By denying voting rights, we are missing an opportunity to engage with struggling people in a positive and meaningful way.
Voter Suppression When describing the act of one’s right to vote being taken away as disenfranchisement, in essence, we are also describing a form of suppression of the vote. We have seen how this type of voter suppression of people who are disenfranchised due to a criminal record manifests itself beyond the one person and their vote. Many scholars have conducted research on the impact of disenfranchisement on not only the political behavior of those who have been or are incarcerated, but also their family, friends, and community . In these studies, they found a substantial decrease in voter turnout and political engagement among families and communities impacted by the criminal justice system and its subsequent iteration of disenfranchisement. There are a number of reasons why this occurs, but two important reasons are 1) inaccessibility to voter and political education resources, and 2) feeling that your vote does not matter because it hasn’t made a difference in the past.
Voter information needs to be more accessible. For instance, the Missouri Secretary of State’s website has some information on how to vote, but according to Ms. Baker of the ACLU of Missouri, it is not “enough information, particularly for people who are coming back into society who have experienced the criminal justice system.”
The lack of information is one of the easiest barriers to remove for voting, and one that the ACLU of Missouri has been filling the gap on for quite some time. They are delivering informational flyers across prisons and jails in the state to inform people of their voting rights and ensure every person’s vote is counted. However, in a study done by Dr. Traci Burch, a political science professor at Northwestern University, voter information is not the sole way to increase turnout and political participation. Here is an excerpt from her study:
“Even with full information, turnout might still be low. When Florida restored the civil rights of hundreds of thousands of ex-offenders, the Department of Corrections, Clemency Board, and Board of Elections teamed up to contact those eligible offenders to tell them that their rights had been restored automatically. These bureaus also held community events and ran advertisements to alert eligible ex-felons of the change in laws. Moreover since 2006, the Department of Corrections in Florida has advised eligible ex-felons about the restoration of their rights as they exit supervision. Undoubtedly, the state found it difficult to reach ex-felons released before the change in the law (Moore 2008). However, turnout remains low even among those ex-offenders released after 2006, suggesting that lack of information is not the primary cause of nonvoting among ex-felons because this group was told explicitly about the automatic restoration of their rights.” 
This study reveals another profound reason that people do not vote in this country: not feeling like their vote will make a difference.
“The system has failed the majority of us that have come from this certain type of lifestyle or this certain type of surroundings or environment that you don't even believe in democracy, period.” Ms. Stanton talks about empowering folks she meets in her community to feel that their voices matter and that they can enact change. She says, “So, as we restore your rights to vote, then you become civically engaged in your community, then you start becoming politically engaged. And then not only that, now we want to encourage you and empower you and provide you with the resources and the knowledge to make you be a person that is eligible or capable to be a candidate to run. So, that's where it starts with giving us the right to vote. So, we have a voice, but it's so much more than that, you know, it’s empowering us.”
Current Efforts at Expanding Enfranchisement All over the nation, community organizers and civil rights activists are pushing for restoration of voting rights for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. Most recently, thousands of dollars are pouring into crowdsourcing campaigns and billionaires are establishing funds to help eligible voters in Florida pay court and restitution fees so they can register to vote. Here in Missouri, there’s also a lot happening. Activists like Ms. Stanton are organizing to restore voting rights and to empower those who have been disenfranchised. On the legal side, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri just started a voter education campaign for pre-trial and post-release folks leading up to the 2020 election. During the state legislative session this year, State Senator Jamilah Nasheed introduced a bill to restore voting rights to people with nonviolent felony convictions who are on parole or probation .
Some progress has been made. The number of Americans barred from voting because of a felony record has gone from 6.1 to 5.2 million since 2016. More states are reforming their laws to expand voting rights. But there is still much progress to be made.
Future of Voting Rights At the end of interviews, I asked people, “What do you envision for the future of voting rights, of enfranchisement, to look like?”
For Ms. Stanton, “Everyone should be allowed to vote. Voting rights should never be taken away. You never lose your citizenship. The issues that cause people to engage in behaviors that lead them to prison should be the focus in criminal justice reform. No one is born with an innate ability to be evil: life experiences, subjective and objective learning, systemic racism as well as the lack of available resources are only some of the factors that contributes to the choices that some people make. So we should focus on solving those issues and then of course, invest in holistic healing, provided the communities with resources, education, healthcare, personal and professional development trainings and jobs. Poverty leads to crime. When we are able to restore marginalized communities and nurture the needs of the people then we create a new reality for us. So that's what I feel like is enfranchisement.”
For Ms. Robinson, “We've done our time, and we should be allowed to vote.”
The importance of listening and empowering people with the lived experience of incarceration cannot be overstated. For people like Ms. Stanton, Ms. Robinson, Ms. Baker, and thousands of activists in this country, the burden is often heavy to create this change. They should not have to do this all by themselves. People who have been privileged in their lives to not be involved in some way with the U.S. criminal justice system have a duty to change the narrative around voting rights for people with a criminal record, to spread awareness on this issue, and to encourage others to join. Together, we can lead our country down a path to enfranchise the millions of citizens who have lost their rights to choose who governs their lives.
When you go to vote this week, if you have not done so already, please remember the millions of people who cannot, who did not know how, who didn’t feel like their voices would be heard. Our country will be stronger when we encourage our justice-involved neighbors to vote, rather than exclude them from this basic right of citizenship.
Endnotes 1. “Votes for Women” was a slogan used during the Women’s Suffrage Movement of the early 1900s. While the movement made strides for securing the right to vote for women, like the 19th Amendment, the movement has been criticized for its classism and racism that pushed many African American, Native American, and poor women out of the movement by only advocating for suffrage for white women and creating elitist spaces. Further reading: Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis.
2. The Sentencing Project. “Locked Out 2020: Estimates of People Denied Rights Due to a Felony Conviction.” (2020). Retrieved October 29, 2020, from https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/locked-out-2020-estimates-of-people-denied-voting-rights-due-to-a-felony-conviction/
3. These are both highly acclaimed and popular at this moment in time but are not exhaustive. For more educational resources on racism in the American criminal justice system: films here; books, films, and podcasts here; bookshere; related books here.
4. These studies are: Burch, Traci. “Turnout and Party Registration among Criminal Offenders in the 2008 General Election.” Law & Society Review 45, no. 3 (2011): 699–730. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5893.2011.00448.x.; King, Bridgett A., Erickson, L. “Disenfranchising the Enfranchised: Exploring the Relationship Between Felony Disenfranchisement and African American Voter Turnout” Journal of Black Studies 47, no. 8 (2016): 799-821. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021934716659195. Lerman, Amy E., Weaver, Vesla M. Arresting Citizenship: the democratic consequences of American crime control. University of Chicago Press (2014).
5. Burch, Traci. “Turnout and Party Registration among Criminal Offenders in the 2008 General Election.” Law & Society Review 45, no. 3 (2011): 699–730. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5893.2011.00448.x.
From Laura’s Desk: On Black Lives Matter and living through a pandemic Written by Laura Toledo, Executive Director of the Center for Women in Transition
Welcome to the inaugural Center for Women in Transition blog! This blog is meant to provide information about our work with the women we serve, as well as our work to promote criminal justice reform.
The Center was founded on principles of restorative justice with the aim of helping women successfully transition from incarceration, while also promoting alternatives to the traditional criminal justice approach.
Today, we look at our work through the lens of current events. We are in the midst of a global health pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color, and are also in the midst of a global surge of activism against police brutality of Black and Brown people. Although we have long known about the social determinants of health, the coronavirus pandemic put in stark relief that these truly are a matter of life and death.
And though we have long known that the criminal justice system is most punitive to Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, George Floyd’s video-taped killing showing calm indifference to the right of a Black man to live and breathe shocked the conscience of our nation, and even the world. These are emotional times for all, including Center staff and clients.
Here at Center for Women in Transition, we believe that Black lives matter, and we reaffirm our stance against racism and in promotion of racial equity. We have committed ourselves to:
Listen to and support each other as we process these events
Call out racism and injustice when we see it
Support and be an active participant in practices that reduce reliance on police and the criminal justice system alone to solve problems, and invest in solutions that address root causes or crime, such as housing instability, substance use, mental illness, and poverty
We are hopeful that the current crises will lead to meaningful change. Our commitment at the Center for Women in Transition is to do everything we can to end systemic racism in our region.