As Chicago gears up for city elections, ex-offenders need to know they have right to vote – Chicago Sun-Times

The public generally believes that if the formerly incarcerated obey laws and avoid pushing back against the status quo, they will be redeemed as good citizens. However, this narrative is simply not true.

Consider this: Some 3.3 million adults have been arrested or convicted of a crime in Illinois since 1979. Most of the 277,000 people released from prison in Illinois every year return to Cook County. Yet only a fraction of these individuals have seats at the tables where decisions are being made about the direction, values and investments made by our state and communities.

These individuals live in our communities. They are significant contributors to our state’s economy, both as consumers and taxpayers. But unfortunately, these contributions have not translated into political power or proper representation, inhibiting them from influencing policy decisions or prioritizing issues they care about, like ending the web of laws that inflict permanent punishments. 

One way to begin making change is by voting, something those with felony convictions too often don’t know is possible. We’re working to change that, leading up to the all-important municipal election in February.

Voting does matter

In November, I celebrated the 10-year anniversary of my release from incarceration. Since then, I’ve been employed, married, a college student, a homeowner, and a very active member of my community. Yet despite my accomplishments, hundreds of laws continue to restrict or limit opportunities for me to assume positions of power or build generational wealth.

For instance, right now over 600,000 people with felony convictions in Illinois are prohibited from serving as the executor or administrator of an estate, even though they may have been appointed by a family member. People with a felony conviction are also prohibited from taking municipal office. And few know of the Bingo License and Tax Act, which states that while a bingo game is being conducted, no person convicted of a felony shall knowingly be permitted to be present. A bingo game.

There are hundreds more of these permanent punishment laws that create another kind of prison long after your sentence has been completed.

Ahead of the midterm elections, the initiative that I lead, the Fully Free Campaign, set our sights on ensuring that every person in Illinois with an arrest or conviction record was aware of their right to vote. Our work is managed by, governed by, and staffed by people who have records. We were able to connect with more than 80,000 people across the state.

Yet too many people we talked to thought that voting did not matter, because they didn’t know they were allowed to vote. Illinois is one of the few states in the country, however, where people can vote as soon as they are released from incarceration. 

We’re taking what we learned during the midterms into the new year for the upcoming mayoral and aldermanic elections, to harness our collective power to show up at the polls in February. Formerly incarcerated people showing up to the polls opens doors for person-centered research and advocacy on policies that will impact their lives.

Many of our partners — such as LIVE FREE, Streetz Gotta Eat, G.O.D, Workers Center for Racial Justice, and the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated — will be joining the Fully Free coalition for voter engagement work across several wards in Chicago.

Permanent punishments prevent people from having agency over their own lives. They prevent people from improving their quality of life through economic opportunity, home ownership and educational attainment. And they can feed a sense of powerlessness and rejection. Throughout history, Black and Brown communities — communities most impacted by mass incarceration — have often been the objects of policy and not the architects.

With strong voter engagement, we can work together to eliminate the web of permanent punishment laws that follow people for the rest of their lives, long after their involvement with the criminal legal system is done. With our partners, we hope to continue building a base of voters and advocates who will exercise their right to vote in all future elections.

Nothing about us without us.

Marlon Chamberlain is the campaign organizer for Fully Free.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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December 12, 2022 at 04:51PM

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