If community activist Ziff Sistrunk’s plan is well laid, Chicagoans who did time for breaking the law may be the decisive players in determining who makes some of the city’s laws in the future.
Along with mayoral candidates, Rahm Emanuel and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a record number of aldermen — more than a third — are in next month’s run-off election. As of now, all bets are off regarding who will be the winners and losers after the votes are counted.
By the time the tallying is done and all the talking points about law and order and budget balancing are delivered, Sistrunk says he wants to make sure that both mayoral candidates and the 19 aldermanic candidates have addressed one other subject: What to do about Chicago’s neglected population of ex-offenders.
That’s what to do with them, not to them. This ambitious plan is not one of those “keep an eye on them so we can catch them before they violate again.” It’s one that recognizes that ex-offenders paid their debt to society and ought to be given a fair shake and full participation in what those of us who have walked the straight and narrow take for granted.
Sistrunk says his organization VOTE– Voice of the Ex-Offenders — has already launched what it’s calling the “X-Offenders 6:45 A.M. Movement. “Forty-five minutes after the polls open at 6 a.m. on April 7, the mission is to have 50,000 ex-cons standing first in line just itching to vote for the candidate who has pledged to look out for them.
To pull this off, Sistrunk says he has recruited 50 ex-offenders to round up 1,000 voters in each of Chicago’s 50 wards. The end result is to have 50,000 voters across the city making a political point.
Voter turnout could even be greater since an ex-con exercising his civic duty presumably would bring his family and friends along, reversing the poor participation the city experienced during last week’s election.
Since he was released from Pontiac Prison nearly four decades ago after doing two and a half years for armed robbery, Sistrunk, who is the director of the South Side’s Kirby Puckett Youth Center, has taken on his fair share of quixotic challenges. For example, along with perennial candidate William “Dock” Walls, in 2007, Sistrunk was briefly a mayoral challenger to Mayor Richard M. Daley until he failed to secure the 12,500 signatures he needed to get on the ballot. Three years ago, Sistrunk was one of the supporters outside Rod Blagojevich’s house protesting the stiff sentencing on the last day of the governor’s freedom.
In five short weeks, we’ll know if the community activist is better at organizing than he is at pipedreaming. I’m hoping that Sistrunk is for real and has real skills to galvanize and mobilize ex-offenders that get them out to vote. There’s a real need. Ex-offenders remain second-class citizens in America. In Illinois, they can’t live in public housing, can’t coach your kid in Little League and can’t work for the city or state.
Nationally, it’s worse. If you did the crime, then do the time, you still can’t vote.
An estimated 5.8 million Americans are prohibited from casting a ballot by state law because of current or previous felony convictions. “That’s more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last month in a speech to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights at Georgetown University Law Center. “And although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable.”
The war on drugs and the creation of the Prison Industrial Complex have compounded this discriminatory development. Under the Obama Administration, federal life sentences have fallen dramatically from 280 in fiscal year 2009 to 153 in 2013 and according to a report released Monday, three-fourths of federal life sentences are given to minorities and the bulk are for non-violent drug offenses. Although the report didn’t say why there are fewer life sentences now than before Obama was sworn in, it’s more than likely because five years ago the president signed a bill narrowing the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1 and for the first time eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
More work needs to be done. Since Illinois is one of only 16 states where ex-offenders can vote, it makes sense to make that vote count here.
Sistrunk says he wants to make sure that opportunities abound for ex-offenders. Come April 7, he will have a chance to prove that he can deliver. If he doesn’t, it will be an opportunity missed.