LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Politics, morality intersecting with 2016 election

An election is never all about politics alone. It is also about morality — about who we are and the values we choose to moor our politics in. Nowhere is the distanced between politics and morality more tightly compressed than in local elections, where candidates from both parties are knocking on the doors of citizens and asking for their votes. It is here in these local elections where we encounter the most basic truth about our political system: the way we treat our most vulnerable citizens says something about who we are.

“Vulnerable citizens,” though, is a capacious category: it includes those in our state’s prison system. In fact, it is these very people — our state’s incarcerated individuals — whose humanity is most at stake in elections.

This is not a new phenomenon: America’s founders recognized that our political system is only as strong as the values and principles it seeks to promote. Indeed, one need not look any further than the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, John Winthrop, to encounter a political program intent on shoring up the humanity of those society has condemned.

Winthrop’s treatment of Phillip Ratcliffe exemplifies this tradition. In 1631, the magistrates of Massachusetts Bay Colony banished Phillip Ratcliffe from the colony as punishment for his “scandalous invectives against [their] churches and governments.” The colonists and magistrates wanted Ratcliffe banished immediately. Before they could act, however, Winthrop intervened. It “being the winter,” he reasoned, Ratcliffe would “otherwise perish” if he was forced to hike into the icy and barren wilderness of Massachusetts. To prevent this miscarriage of justice, Winthrop allowed Radcliffe to remain in Boston until the end of winter.

The preceding vignette demonstrates how it is possible to cash out a virtuous political agenda using the raw resources of justice properly applied. Winthrop’s intervention was significant precisely because without it, Radcliffe’s punishment — that of banishment — would have been corrupted into a death-by-other-means sentence — something incongruent with what the General Court of Boston decided.

Though the days of “banishment” are thankfully behind us, we do practice something roughly equivalent in today’s criminal justice system: long-term incarceration. We also practice a troubling eagerness to impose “death by other means” sentences on those returning from incarceration. Instead of forcing them out into the icy wilderness of Massachusetts, we shut them out of jobs which prevent them from fully integrating back into society. In doing so, we effectively impose a slow, cruel, and inhumane economic death on the formerly incarcerated. It’s the same sort of death that Radcliffe would have surely suffered had Winthrop not intervened.

Thankfully, Delaware’s state legislature has recognized the injustice of these practices and has worked to put an end to them by passing a “ban the box” measure (H.B. 167) for formerly incarcerated people applying for jobs in the public sector. At its core, H.B. 167 is an example of how it is possible to cash out a virtuous political program using the raw resources of justice properly applied.

This means giving those who have already paid their debt to society a second chance upon release. While H.B. 167 is no panacea, it is at the very least something. Specifically, H.B. 167 has accomplished two important tasks: First, it has affirmed the dignity of some of society’s most vulnerable members.

And two, it has made it more difficult for the dual forces of indifference and cruelty to flourish in Delaware’s public sector. Once consolidated, these two accomplishments operate in the service of strengthening Delaware’s economy, society and, more importantly, enriching the moral fabric that holds our state together. John Winthrop, I think, would approve.

But before we hitch our wagon to the moral star of the Delaware state legislature, it should be noted that H.B. 167 did not pass unanimously. Among the knuckle-dragging members of the house who opposed H.B. 167 were eight state representatives and four state senators.

What is crying out for explanation here is not the misguidedness of the vote. After all, many lawmakers are on the wrong side of history every now and then. But rather, it is the hypocrisy of voting against H.B. 167, as Rep. Ruth Briggs King did on Jan. 28, 2014, but then, a mere six months later, hiring inmates to print her campaign materials before a re-election bid — as Briggs King did on Sept. 6, 2014. What is unclear here is if Briggs King realized the moral error of her vote on Jan. 28 and tried to rectify the mistake by hiring inmates to work on her campaign (for pennies), or if pure economic calculation gave rise to her decision to seek out the cheapest form of labor she could possibly find.

If it’s the former, Briggs King is guilty of poor judgment. But, given the racial inequality that stalks our criminal justice system, if it is the latter — that is, hiring prisoners because they do not need to be paid a living wage — Briggs King is flirting dangerously close with enacting a style of politics and governance that would be familiar to families in the Old South before the Civil War. Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. The cost of Briggs King’s tribute? $920.

Abby de Uriarte
Millsboro

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