It started out as lighthearted banter about a bill to ban ivory trafficking.

It ended up as a heated debate that pitted the voting rights of jailed citizens against the rights of crime victims.

EDITORIAL

The partisan tussle, detailed by state government expert Rich Miller in his Capitol Fax newsletter, took place earlier this week in Springfield when the House was about to consider HB 4469. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Juliana Stratton, D-Chicago, would ensure that jailed citizens know their voting rights and are given the opportunity to exercise them.

The bill already has bipartisan support. It has cleared the Elections & Campaign Finance Committee too. But Republican legislators, apparently still smarting because Democrats recently killed several so-called victims’ rights proposals, spoke up to slam HB 4469 for supposedly “coddling criminals.”

Let’s be clear: This bill does nothing of the sort.

Jail detainees have not been convicted of any crime. Most of them are probably still in custody solely because they’re too poor to post bail. This bill would ensure that those detainees — about 20,000 in Illinois, according to the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law — have the same ability to vote as other citizens, including those with the money to post bond and get to a polling place. It’s that simple.

The dust-up between House Republicans and Democrats put HB 4469, at least for now, on hold. The bill would require county jails to set up vote-by-mail programs and provide registration materials to detainees, and would designate Cook County Jail as an official polling place.

It also would require the Illinois Department of Corrections to give voting information to ex-offenders upon their release. Providing such information, we suppose we must add, isn’t “coddling” either. IDOC isn’t being told to chauffeur ex-offenders anywhere to make sure they register.

As the Shriver Center also points out, research shows that re-enfranchising those with criminal convictions helps them re-acclimate to society and become productive citizens.

That’s a goal both Republicans and Democrats should get behind, by passing this bill and moving on to other business.

Which brings us to crime victims’ rights. We support the idea, of course. Anyone who has been the victim of a crime deserves justice, not just sympathy.

But let’s be clear that what we’re talking about in this case are sentence-enhancement bills, which Democrats have drawn a line in the sand to oppose, though they should be debated openly on their merits.

In that spirit, allow us to offer a few worthy questions:

How do these bills enhance the rights of victims?  Will a longer sentence deter crime? Are sentence enhancements discriminatory? Are they necessary, since judges have discretion, in many cases, to hand down a sentence based on the specific circumstances of a crime? And what’s wrong with a bill that would up the punishment for assaulting child welfare workers, whose jobs often take them into volatile situations and tough neighborhoods?

But let’s not muddy the waters by conflating a crime victim’s rights with overheated, false rhetoric about “coddling criminals.”

Standing up for crime victims should never be confused with denying the voting rights of others.

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