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Nebraska State Penitentiary

Nebraska State Penitentiary

Even though the sentence for Nebraskans convicted of a felony ends when they’ve completed all the requirements, one punishment – the inability to vote – languishes for an additional two years.

That number was an arbitrary one, the result of a 2005 compromise to ensure ex-felons no longer required a full pardon before having their voting rights restored. No doubt that marked a major step forward, a ripple that is part of a wave that has created progress coast to coast.

As such, it’s time for Nebraska to take the next step and pass legislation that reinstates their right to vote once the terms of a felony sentence are met. These Nebraskans have upheld the terms needed for their release; the state should uphold the promise of seamless reintegration into society.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne has again introduced a bill to achieve this end. His last effort two years ago earned approval from 36 senators at various times in the legislative process and made it to Gov. Pete Ricketts’ desk, but the body failed to override the governor’s veto.

Much of the reason the Journal Star editorial board favors this idea is because numerous studies have demonstrated a marked, direct correlation between voting and staying out of prison. Perhaps the most noteworthy among them came from the Florida Parole Commission, which in 2011 noted only 11 percent former felons who regained the right to vote reoffended, as opposed to 33.1 percent of the disenfranchised. (In 2018, voters in that state overwhelmingly elected to re-enfranchise most ex-felons.)

Also, remember that Nebraska continues to wrestle with prison capacity that exceeds 160 percent of its design – and a July 1, 2020 overcrowding emergency declaration gets nearer every day. Therefore, a program that costs nothing but has proved to reduce recidivism elsewhere merits strong consideration from a practical standpoint.

Furthermore, the movement to return voting rights transcends party lines.

Neighboring Iowa is one of just two states that permanently precludes felons from voting unless the governor approves their application for restoration. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has pushed a plan to dramatically ease the process by which felons can petition to regain their ability to vote while the wheels turn on her proposal to amend the state constitution to achieve that end upon their release.

By definition, correctional institutions exist to reform the more than 90 percent of inmates who will one day leave prison walls. Everyone is better off if they become and remain productive, involved citizens.

The words of Shakur Abdullah, who served more than four decades for two felonies he committed at 16, should strike a chord with all Nebraskans. He told lawmakers that, if the state is going to accept ex-felons’ tax dollars, it must also accept their say in the representative democracy that spends them.

On that note, money provides the perfect closing analogy: When prisoners have fully paid their debt to society, they’ve earned their ability to rejoin it as fully as possible.

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