In a fascinating Op-Ed to the New York Times, Yale Professors Jason Stanley and Vesla Weaver explore the impact of contact with the criminal justice system on political participation.

In the United States we have a system of collateral consequences that continue to punish an offender far beyond the time spent behind bars or under court ordered correctional supervision. These collateral consequences range from disclosure of criminal history on employment applications to loss of public housing and education benefits. In all but two states – Maine and Vermont – those incarcerated are even barred from voting.  To read more about the ACLU of Maine’s work on protecting the voting rights of incarcerated Mainers click here.

However, Professors Stanley and Weaver find (the issue will also be the subject of an upcoming book co-authored by Weaver) that there is a strong correlation between contact with the criminal justice system (contact with the criminal justice system includes incarceration, community supervision, arrest and those who are just stopped and questioned by the police) and withdrawal from political life – even when no legal barrier exists. 

In a large survey of mostly men in American cities, the probability of voting declined by 8 percent for those who had been stopped and questioned by the police; 16 percent for those who had experienced arrest; 18 percent for those with a conviction; 22 percent for those serving time in jail or prison; and, 26 percent for those serving a sentence of a year or more.  Stanley and Weaver argue that citizens subjected to prison, jail or police surveillance have learned that government is something to be avoided, rather than participate in and thus prefer to instead “stay below the radar.”

This is even more frightening when we take into account the extreme racial disparities that exist within our criminal justice system. African American’s represent almost half of the 2.23 million currently incarcerated in the United States. 1 in every three black males can expect to spend some time behind bars during his life.  And those convicted of a crime are only a portion of the population that come in contact with the police. Consider stop-and-frisk policing. Prior to Judge Scheindlin’s ruling this past fall, in the first three quarters of 2013, 179,063 New Yorkers were stopped by the police.  56 percent were back, 29 percent were Latino and 11 percent were white. Nine out of ten people stopped were completely innocent.  To find out more about the NYCLU’s work on stop-and-frisk click here.

Our democracy is at its strongest when all our citizens are able to freely participate. As this article highlights, the growth of our criminal justice system is affecting the very quality of our democracy, as millions of Americans - disproportionately people of color - are stymied from partaking in the political process both through formal and informal mechanisms. It is of the utmost importance that we continue to roll back "tough-on-crime" policies and practices that continue to increase the reach and scope of our justice system.