I want to touch on voting and on enhanced earned sentence reductions. The right to vote is fundamental to any civilized nation. As is the right to liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. Should I, as an inmate and convicted felon, lose these things? No. It is true that I have lost a portion of my freedom, but only a portion. I am still covered by the Bill of Rights and the Constitutions of the United States of America and the Commonwealth of Virginia. I did not lose my American citizenship when I was convicted of my crime. I did not cease to be a resident in the Commonwealth of Virginia. So why should I, as an American citizen and a resident of the Commonwealth of Virginia, lose my right to vote just because I was convicted of a felony? The answer is simple, because it is a way to further punish me and because most Republicans believe allowing me to vote will cost them elections. Now that’s not how Conservatives will frame their argument against my right to vote of course. They will claim, with a very staunch look, that removing a convicted felon’s right to vote is a deterrent to crime. Honestly, though, have you ever heard anyone say they aren’t going to commit a felony because they will lose their right to vote? Nobody has. So here is the crux of my position on convicted felons, incarcerated or not, voting. If it is constitutional to take away the right to vote from an American citizen and a resident of the Commonwealth of Virginia because he or she committed a felony, then who is next? What’s to stop the government from taking away the right to vote from people who are pro choice? What’s to stop the government from taking away the right to vote from people who are Muslim? Now you are probably saying the Constitution stops them. Well, it didn’t stop them from taking away the right to vote from felons who are covered by the same Constitution of which you are speaking. Let me be fair though. I have been on both sides of the criminal justice system. I do fully understand stripping some rights away from convicted felons. I understand stripping a convicted felon of his or her right to bear arms. I understand stripping a convicted felon of some of his or her protections against searches and seizures. These things are done for the protection of society at large. But how is anyone protected by denying convicted felons the right to vote? They aren’t. That takes us back to my earlier point, denying convicted felons the right to vote is nothing more than further punishment. It is a Conservative stance to show that they are tough on crime and a product of their fear that allowing convicted felons to vote will cost them elections. However, I don’t think anyone believes it is constitutional to deny someone the right to vote just because they won’t vote the way you want them to. Yet that is what is happening to convicted felons each time we have an election.
Now to my second point, enhanced earned sentence reductions. These reductions make good sense on a number of levels. First, they make prisons safer for inmates, officers, and staff. The more an inmate has to lose, the more that inmate will think before doing something wrong. The less an inmate has to lose, the less that inmate will care about doing wrong. Second, giving an inmate the chance to earn credits toward a sentence reduction gives an inmate hope and something to work for. Hope and purpose are essential to anyone’s mental and physical wellbeing, especially an inmate’s. Now I realize that Departments of Correction do a great job of talking about rehabilitation, but that is basically all smoke and mirrors. The reality is that they do the absolute bare minimum to even try and rehabilitate anyone. That leaves rehabilitation in the hands of the inmate. He or she must take the initiative to better themselves. However, for most inmates that seems pointless. What is the point in trying to better yourself when you are not rewarded for it? Therefore, I have an idea I would like to see implemented in Virginia and other states as well. As the federal government makes pell grants more available, I believe this idea will become more and more implementable. Many inmates leaving prison are behind the eight ball educationally when they seek employment. I propose that states enact legislation that allows an inmate to earn enhanced sentence reductions for every degree the inmate receives while incarcerated. States could provide an inmate with a five percent reduction in their sentence for each degree they earn, on top of their good behavior reduction. This would make for smarter and more knowledgeable inmates. It would make for more qualified and employable men and women looking to join the workplace following prison. It would improve the mental and physical wellbeing of inmates. It would allow inmates a quicker transition back into society. It would allow inmates the opportunity to do something that would bring themselves, their families, and their loved ones a sense of pride and accomplishment. And it would keep inmates busy, leaving them less time to get into trouble. I firmly believe this program would benefit the States, the inmates, inmates’ families, employers, society, and our nation as a whole.
Travis Sorrells, Haynesville Correctional Center
BIO: Currently, I am about nine years into a fifteen year sentence. I am also seeking a Theological Degree through International Christian College and Seminary. My goal during this time is to make myself as ready as possible to reenter society in a way that allows me to be both productive and contributive.