Patrick Appel has a great item in the Atlantic’s “ideas” section about voting rights for convicted felons. He makes the critical point that the evidence indicates this is actually a counterproductive crime control measure:
According to a 2004 study, former prisoners who vote are half as likely to reoffend. If suffrage constitutes even a small nudge toward the straight and narrow, why shouldn’t we grant prisoners the right to vote? As things now stand, criminal-voting laws vary widely by state: in some, a first-time drug offender will be denied the right to vote for life; in others, murderers can vote while behind bars. But overall, America’s position on voting rights, particularly with regard to former criminals, is the most punitive of any developed nation. [...]
Crime costs this country an estimated $1.4 trillion annually. Unless disenfranchisement helps reduce that number — and the evidence suggests that it does the opposite — then denying prisoners the vote in order to minutely heighten the virtue of the voting pool is a bad trade.
Unfortunately, the crime control discussion in the United States tends to be heavily focused on people’s emotional sense of outrage, on nobody wanting to be seen as an advocate for criminals, and on a certain amount of denial that this is even an important issue. But it is an important issue—high crime rates are really damaging—and we have a strong interest in using punishments that work, and eschewing punishments that don’t.
As a bonus, here’s a map showing the variance in state-by-state policies:
Unfortunately, the reality is that there’s a lot of partisan politics in the way of changing this.