On Thursday, Jan. 29, I participated in Second Chance Day at the Capitol in St. Paul and met with Minnesota legislators. The purpose of the event was to try to persuade elected officials to restore the right to vote for convicted felons. The Minnesota Constitution denies that right to “a person convicted of treason or felony, unless restored to civil rights.”
In Minnesota, such rights cannot be restored until a person has first completed all of the terms of his or her sentence, including incarceration, probation and parole, and supervised release. Currently, there are over 47,000 felons who have no voting rights in our state.
Never in my wildest dreams in the past would I have expected to participate in an event like this. I had never been convicted of a crime, much less a felony. Nor had any of my family or friends.
That was until I was convicted by a jury of a felony on Oct. 29, 2014 — sexual solicitation of a minor on the Internet.
I was arrested through a sting operation, but I am not going to go into the particulars of my defense. I respect the decision of the jury and take responsibility for the crime I committed. What I do want to share, though, is my experience of losing my right to vote and what it has done to me emotionally and the effect it has on my ties to the community. I want to speak specifically to people who may say, “Hey buddy, you should have thought about the impact before you committed your crime.”
I have a long record of being a productive member of society both as a working professional and a volunteer. I served as chairman of the board of an organization that treats the brain-injured and on church finance committees. I even took time out in my career to help start a school for low-income students. In short, I was an active and engaged member of our community.
That activism included voting. I worked for candidates on the state and local levels, participated in voter forums, and took my right to vote very seriously. I have voted in every major primary and general election. Minnesota is often a leader in voter turnout, and I always was proud to include myself in that number. Losing the right to vote is especially painful for me.
My arrest and conviction have had broad implications with multiple punishments. Upon my arrest, I lost my job. After 18 months and 17 trial postponements, I finally had my day in court, and lost. After my conviction, I immediately lost a number of civil rights, including my right to vote and to serve on a jury. I was also told that landlords do not have to rent to felons. At my sentencing six weeks later, further punishment was administered, including serving time in the county workhouse.
For the duration of my five-year probation, I must meet more than 25 probation conditions. I am not allowed to use the Internet except for 30 minutes a day at the library to find a job. I have no access to my e-mail account. This probation requirement, along with my conviction record, makes finding employment a challenge. In addition, I cannot leave the state to visit family, including my 81-year-old mother in Wisconsin.
On top of all of these punishments, articles on my arrest, trial and conviction, with my mug shot, will be forever available on the Internet, long after my probation period is over, long after I am dead.
These punishments leave me isolated and desperate. No income, slim job prospects, and friends and neighbors who have turned their backs on me leave me reeling emotionally. I feel disengaged from the community. The less I feel a part of the community, the more disenfranchised I become, and I retreat further to the edges of society. I become less invested. Is this a good thing? Every day I can see on the news the havoc people can cause when they feel isolated, hopeless and full of despair.
Allowing felons like me to vote will go a long way toward helping me feel connected again, toward helping me on my road back to becoming a productive and engaged member of society. I understand that any perceived leniency is scary for many people. But I hope that others will see that people do need a second chance, that community connections count and that having the right to vote can help create these connections.
Steve J. Schulz lives in Minneapolis.