Carl Wicklund: Felon voting rights make us all safer

Carl Wicklund is executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, headquartered in Lexington.
Carl Wicklund is executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, headquartered in Lexington.

Kentucky is on the cusp of making voting a more fair and democratic process for people with past criminal convictions.

As a Kentucky resident with four decades of experience in the criminal justice field, I believe the state must press forward to pass House Bill 70 into law. Doing so will help people reintegrate into their communities and make our state safer.

There are many good reasons to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions, but as someone who has worked for years on the challenges of integrating former prisoners back into free society, the most tangible one to me is that it will improve public safety.

As executive director of the national association that represents the probation and parole agents who supervise more than 4 million people across the country, I understand the importance of connecting people released from prison to positive institutions in the community, including employment, education and also voting.

When formerly incarcerated people to take part in civic activities it strengthens the ties between these individuals and their fellow citizens. When people vote, they are making an investment in their community. That is valuable for anyone, but is especially so for people returning from incarceration.

When people are incarcerated, they spend a lot of time focusing on themselves as individuals. But rehabilitation continues after incarceration, and one of the big challenges for people returning to free society is shifting from that individual focus to an understanding of one's self as part of a community.

Research shows one of the key factors in successful re-entry is a person's identity as a responsible citizen. This identity is built through activities like community engagement, volunteer work and voting.

The ultimate goals of parole and probation work are to prevent future crime and protect public safety. Professionals in the field do this by working to ensure the successful reintegration of individuals into their communities, not by continuing to punish people who have already served their time.

That is why voting rights should be restored for people as soon as they leave incarceration. At that point, authorities have concluded that an individual can rejoin free society and get on with the work of building a life and integrating into a community.

It is our job to help that process along, and withholding the fundamental right to vote does nothing to help us. Keeping that barrier in place makes our job harder.

For the first time, both the Kentucky House and Senate have passed legislation to amend the state's felony disenfranchisement law and allow people with past criminal convictions to vote without receiving an individual pardon from the governor.

But the Senate version has been weighed down with further limits regarding who is eligible for restoration, hampering the reach of this historic change.

I urge the legislature to support the House version, which would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to restore voting rights to certain people with criminal convictions after they have served their sentences. We are all better served if these Americans have the same duties and rights as other Americans.