On April 22, 2016 Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe by executive order restored the voting rights of 206,000 felons who have served their time and completed other requirements. Also bestowed were the rights to serve on a jury, run for office and serve as a notary public. He framed his action broadly, “If we are going to build a stronger and more equal Virginia, we must break down barriers to participation in civic life for people who return to society seeking a second chance. We must welcome them back and offer the opportunity to build a better life by taking an active role in our democracy. I believe it is time to cast off Virginia’s troubling history of injustice and embrace an honest, clean process for restoring the rights of these men and women.”
Overheated rhetoric aside, Governor McAuliffe’s decree is clearly the oft-used ploy to win elections by enfranchising potential supporters. There is, however, a broader view of the Governor’s decree, and from this perspective his actions are far more consequential than pushing Virginia into the Democratic column. In a nutshell, this franchise expansion is yet one more step in the Left-egalitarian campaign of removing the stigma if not decriminalizing offences disproportionately committed by African Americans.
The Left has long focused on disproportionate black criminality. Until recently, however, the ideological orthodoxy dictated tackling alleged root causes—poverty, inadequate education, racial discrimination, white bigotry and the like. Alas, expensive crusades have come up short and with the “conservative” law and order option politically unacceptable, the new approach is to either decriminalize once illegal behavior or, as with restoring the franchise, remove the stigma put on miscreants. This is the triumph of made-in-the-academy moral relativism and its first cousin, multiculturalism. From this perspective, why should society jail black shoplifters who steal a $100 watches while ignoring white stock traders who pocket millions in dubious market manipulations? Among the academic cognoscenti, all crime is socially constructed and merely reflects power so equal power means eliminating unequal criminalization. .
The decriminalization of crime is a multi-front crusade whose dots are seldom connected. There’s the “ban the box” campaign to forbid employers from asking job applicants about past criminal activity. Crime-related questions could still be asked but only if the applicant survives the initial screening process. Currently, over a hundred municipalities and counties in some 23 state have banned the box and the Obama administration has proposed applying it when hiring federal employees. A close relative are “fair chance employment laws” that currently exist in San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC that require employers to consider the relationship between the crime and work responsibilities, how much time has elapsed since the crime occurred, evidence of rehabilitation and possible mitigating circumstances.
Seven states also require the “fair chance” policy for government contractors and the Obama administration is enlisting some 112 blue chip private firms such as American Airlines, Koch Industries, Google, Starbucks, Facebook and Xerox with 1.5 million employees to follow suit. Almost predictably, Council of Economic Advisors experts have been conscripted to “demonstrate” that incarceration harms the economy so we all would be better off by integrating former criminals into civic life.
Further add the successful movement to downgrade minor offenses disproportionally committed by African Americans. Foremost is the legalization of marijuana or at least tolerating small transactions. Connecticut, for example, like several other states has reduced “simple drug procession” from a felony to a misdemeanor and eliminated mandatory prison sentences. Going one step further, New York City is seriously considering reclassifying such crimes as not paying for public transportation, public drinking, spitting, littering and urination as civil, not criminal violations whose penalty is just paying a fine or perform some community service. Also to be removed from the catalogue of criminal offenses would be various offenses that occur in parks, for example, lingering past closing times or taking up too much space on a park bench (that is, sleeping on the bench).
A similar decriminalization now occurs in many schools thanks to Department of Justice pressure to equalize suspension and expulsion penalties. It matters not that blacks are more likely to violate the rules; just assumed is that misconduct is uniform across all racial/ethnic groups so the upshot is that many blacks enjoy de facto diplomatic immunity from school discipline.
Paralleling these legal changes is a shift in vocabulary as if labels could alter harsh reality. During the 1950s criminally inclined youngsters were “juvenile delinquents” but by the 1980s this label had almost totally been replaced by “youngsters at risk” as if the perpetrators, not the victims, required protection.
But, the march toward linguistically sanitizing criminality has now gone one step further. The Obama administration now speaks of “justice involved youth” and assumes that once they have paid their debt to society, they are just as job-worthy as those never involved in the criminal justice system and thus should not have to overcome “unnecessary barriers to economic opportunity and productivity.” Think about what this language implies—those who have completed their sentences are now psychologically transformed so potential employers reluctant to hire or rent to them are guilty of erecting “unnecessary barriers.”
And the sanitizing continues. The Department of Justice’s office that supports law enforcement nationally just announced that it will bar the word “felon” or “convict” from its website or accept its use in grant applications. The new (and “improved”) words are “person who committed a crime” or “individual who was incarcerated.” Recall the old joke about how shoplifters will now become “non-traditional shoppers.”
This rhetoric is not just talk. Thanks to the Juvenile Reentry Assistance Program (JRAP) Uncle Sam will assist these “justice involved” youths expunge or seal their youthful criminal records, help them restore suspended privileges such as drivers’ licenses, access to professions baring ex-cons and modifying child support obligations. In other words, the goal is to make former criminals as close as possible (and recall the restoration of the right to vote) to non-criminals. Needless to say, there is no mention of rampant recidivism—within three years of release some two-thirds had been re-arrested with more than half being re-arrested in the first year. By government decree, there can be no life of crime when barriers are removed.
Then there are funds ($1.75 million) to public housing authorities to assist young people whose criminal records currently bar them from public housing. And if this were insufficient, the Department of Veteran Affairs is sponsoring some 120 evens at Bureau of Prison facilities, 350 Veteran Treatment Courts and 1284 local jails for “justice involved” veterans to overcome barriers.
Will this remarkably successful political campaign actually benefit African Americans? Obviously millions of blacks, everyone from newly enfranchised voters to students who escape expulsion to ex-con job applicants, will think so. And it goes without saying that various legal victories will enhance the popularity of black office holders and their allies. Hard to argue against anything, at least superficially, that “reduces crime,” albeit by altering the legal code or employing euphemisms.
Unfortunately, the negative side of the ledger far outweighs the plus side. To bring all of this together, imagine a city where office-seekers appeal to ex-felons, where discipline-by-racial quota schools are mired in violence, juries include ex-felons, drunks and petty drug dealers operate with minimal police interference and businesses are reluctant to hire locals thanks to costly criminal background checks? Such a setting may be a boon to some but for most, regardless of race, this is dystopic and hardly a fantasy—just visit Detroit or Gary, IN or similar black-majority city to witness the consequences of de facto decriminalization. That many of these “helpful” policies are advocated by those miles away and insulated from the forthcoming damage to poor, law-abiding blacks only adds insult injury.
A deeper and unspeakable question exists here regarding what constitutes the appropriate standards of civic life. At least for some, parks with drunks sleeping it off on benches, chaotic schools and all the rest are not really grave problems demanding tough broken windows style law and order. Nor do they mind a voting bloc of ex-cons who might elect one of their own mayor. For others, however, tolerating petty public drug dealing or rampaging “justice involved” teenagers is cause to move away. And, of the utmost importance, outside of strict segregation, it is hard to imagine peaceful co-existence of these opposing visions of civic life. To be blunt, all of this de-criminalization is best understood as a radical egalitarian driven shift of tectonic plates, “a coming apart” of American social life, to use Charles Murray’s book title. Who would have ever predicted the Left pushing America toward a new Jim Crow?