Friday, August 10, 2007

Prisoners and The Right to Vote by Louis Evan Palmer

A surprising number of countries deny the right to vote to prisoners. Some, like America, make it dependent on the severity of the sentence, others like the UK apply it across the board although the UK recently lost an EU court case and must restore this right as soon as possible.

The denial of voting rights is not something that typically appears in a judge's statement along with the length of incarceration. It is more like a common practice that is assumed but may come as a shock to a given prisoner who had expected to be able to cast a ballot in a federal election.

In ancient Athens, losing your right to vote was a possible outcome of a conviction along with exile, death or a fine. It does highlight the fact that deprival of the right to vote has long antecedents. But then, when the "state" was a city, the reasoning behind denying this right was clearer, it was part of excluding a person from the city and the affairs of the city. Now it's less clear as exile is not an official remedy and the convict will remain a citizen and within the borders & jurisdiction of the state. And we hope that the theory and administration of the law has advanced somewhat in the intervening centuries.

In a challenge argued before Canada's Supreme Court, the reasoning, or lack thereof, was outlined and debated. The Court stated that "the government must show that the infringement achieves a constitutionally valid purpose or objective, and that the chosen means are reasonable and demonstrably justified". The Court found that the government did not show or prove their case - "The government has failed to identify particular problems that require denying the right to vote..."

Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), captured part of the government's logical dilemma when he asked "The courts don't sentence by taking away citizenship, and citizens have a right to vote in this country". Of course, in George Bush's Amerika, taking away a person's citizenship is exactly what will be done. Then we're thrown on the gentle protections of human rights. But, a government that has cast away its own citizenship protection will likely not be put off by human rights either.

In the political arena, prisoners might, at the least, be interested in criminal justice systems issues and have valuable insight and input. The size of the prison population is most countries would not be a factor in elections, especially in cases where the ballots may not count in a single jurisdiction.

However, this leads us to a disturbing observation. If a faction within a given country decided that they wanted to disenfranchise a group of people and they could manipulate issues and events towards that end, they could use a prison system that denies the right to vote as a way to accomplish that goal. As a bonus, while significantly increasing the prison population, a plantation-type economy could be imposed on them and a lot of money made with a cheap, captive labour force.

This is another unexpected reason why preserving the right to vote for prisoners is important. To preserve their voice in the electoral process and the law and order issues that get attention.

The United States currently has the largest prison population in the world and is serving as an example of how to wage an undeclared war on a nation's poor and minorities. While the crime rate decreases (since 1992), the arrest and incarceration rates increase. Cheap drugs deluge poor neighbourhoods, a phony War on Drugs targets them, a biased law enforcement and justice system arrests and convicts them. This is how you must do it to get the really big numbers - over two million!

The United States has a large number of vast, plantation-style private prisons that are run as low-wage, non-union shops that unfairly compete with other companies and sweet-talk and bully their way into lucrative state and federal contracts.

Typically, none of these American prisoners can vote. This is a sneaky way to re-introduce slavery and disenfranchise Afro and Hispanic Americans at a single stroke. In Canada and Austrailia, aboriginal peoples were/are similarly disenfranchised.

Yes, there are truly dangerous people who must be jailed, some for life. But, the current prison situation in the United States is far beyond that, there it's a class war where more than half the prison population has been convicted of non-violent crimes and, to a very large extent, represents poor or minority groups.

Let's not forget that the justice system is far from perfect with widespread corruption, wrongful convictions, flawed judicial proceedings. In many respects, the war on drugs which is the main source of new prisoners is the lashing and flailing of a prohibition-style campaign that's never going to get repealed until there's no one left to imprison.

The current American model of justice serves as a cautionary tale and vigilance must be renewed in other countries to not allow that type of factory prison farm to become established. Giving prisoners to right to vote is a step in that direction away from quasi-slavery and disenfranchisement. After all, most prisoners will rejoin society at some point and being engaged politically can only help in that re-integration and in dealing fairly with criminal justice issues.

Prisoners and The Right to Vote, Louis Evan Palmer, The Way It Can Be,
Copyright 2007 Louis Evan Palmer lives in Ontario Canada. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications.


No comments: