Restoring Felons’ Rights: Perhaps Every ‘Buddy’ Needs to Belong

Restoring Felons’ Rights: Perhaps Every ‘Buddy’ Needs to Belong

Playing by the rules.

It’s a basic concept, one we teach to children. Don’t steal other players’ money or property (if you’re playing Monopoly). Play the cards you have in your hand if you can; draw only if you can’t (if you’re playing Uno).

Play by the rules and you can have fun. Play by the rules and you can have friends. Later in life, play by the rules and you can earn rewards: a diploma, a job, a promotion.

Like any lesson taught, some will not learn it right away. Then the consequences kick in.

Steal someone’s property or money in Monopoly, or draw until you get that Wild Draw 4 in Uno, and the game may be over.  If the behavior persists, if the lesson remains unlearned, the friendships may be over, too.

Later in life, similar violations of society’s rules have scaled-up consequences. If we steal property or money, if we seek to unfairly strengthen the hand we have been dealt in life, we are taken out of the game for a period of time. We go to jail (or prison), just like Monopoly. But unlike Monopoly, we can’t roll doubles and get out and we’re not likely to find a Get Out of Jail Free card.

For kids, there’s always the question, what happens next? What happens the next weekend, when the kid who had cheated comes around to see if he or she can play? Is the kid “out,” or can the kid come back “in”?

Later in life, the question is the same, but the stakes are even higher. What do we do with the offender who has done the time for the crime? Can the offender return to the normal game of life? Are they permanently “out,” or can they come back “in” as a full member of society?

Floridians may get the chance to decide the answer to a part of that question in 2018. Advocates for automatic restoration of voting rights to most convicted felons who have completed their sentences have gathered enough signatures to have their petition language reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court.

Proponents of voting rights restoration adopt the view that, for most offenders, there should be a reasonable path to fully restored membership in society. Today, in Florida, that’s far from the case. Offenders must petition the governor and Cabinet. For their part, the governor and Cabinet rarely meet to consider these petitions.

There are those who would argue that full restoration should be difficult if not impossible. Felons should be permanently “out.” Sure, these individuals, when they’ve done their time, will be free to live in society, but they won’t really be of the society. They should bear a permanent sign of their offense, never truly forgiven, let alone forgotten.

One might consider asking a pragmatic question (setting aside whether and to what extent this actually is about rights): what is best for society as a whole? Does restoration, or ostracism, better serve the collective good?

I’m reminded of a game of Uno.

I was sitting on my living room floor with a fairly large circle of children. Most of the children were my children, though I think there were also some others. One of the children was a recently placed foster child, a little boy of seven with an infectious laugh and a short fuse. I’ll call him Buddy.

Buddy had the misfortune of playing with some astute card sharks. They caught on to the fact that he was drawing for a better card to play whenever he wanted to, rather than playing the cards in his hand. They called him on it and told him he was cheating.

Buddy threw his cards down (he had quite a few cards, given his illicit strategy of drawing) and stomped away.

The kids looked at me. I quietly gathered up Buddy’s cards and placed them in a neat stack at his place in the circle. I smiled at the kids and, with a shrug, played my next card.

A couple of rounds later, I felt a weight on my back and shoulder. It really wasn’t a very heavy weight, but it was noticeable.

When Buddy’s turn came around, I picked up his stack of cards and held them up near the “weight.” They were taken from there, and soon an appropriate card fluttered down to the floor.

We played the rest of the game that way.

And I think we were better for it.

Every “buddy” needs to be “in” with someone. Every “buddy” will seek someone with whom they can belong. What we get to decide is whether we, the good society, will be that someone.