There is typically a very strong emotional reaction to discussions around whether or not we should allow prisoners to vote. It seems there is a general fear that doing so will somehow make prison less effective as a form of punishment or that it will take away from the rights of law-abiding citizens (or at least those who haven’t been caught or sent to prison for a crime).
There are three key reasons we have prisons: 1) to punish people for committing a crime (and to promote justice); 2) to protect society (by temporarily removing people who are thought to pose a risk to the community); and 3) to detain people for the purpose of rehabilitation (in order to try to prevent future offending and therefore reduce the harms to society caused by offending).
Prisoner voting relates to each of these roles.
Taking away someone’s right to vote removes their ability to take part in the democratic process (widely considered a fundamental human right). The common argument made against prisoner voting rights supports the first aspect of prisons: that people need to be punished for their crimes (e.g., “If you break the rules of society, you don’t deserve to have a say in how it’s run”).
The problem with this kind of argument is that lots of people break the laws of society and aren’t necessarily put in prison, and therefore can still vote (e.g., they may not be given a prison sentence or may be put on remand). Problematically, there are all sorts of factors that play a role in whether or not someone is put in prison for a crime and there are many opportunities for bias to affect this decision (at multiple levels and stages).
For instance, we know two people who have committed the same offence can be given different sentences based on simple factors such as whether or not they have a stable address where they may be placed on parole (if not, they go to prison). We also know groups such as Māori (due to continued effects of colonisation) are less likely to have stable addresses for parole, and therefore are more likely to be given prison sentences for the same crime a Pākehā person commits. As has been stipulated in the Waitangi Tribunal’s recent submission, removing the voting rights of prisoners disproportionately affects groups such as Māori and does not reflect a ‘just’ approach to justice.
Part of the role of the prison system is to protect society by temporarily removing people deemed to pose a threat to the public. Yet not all prisoners are the high-profile rapists and murderers that typically catch media attention, and not all necessarily pose a significant risk to society. In fact, only 17.5 percent of New Zealand’s prison population are deemed ‘high risk’ or above. Not only are most people in prisons not high risk, but removing their voting rights adds no protective value to New Zealand’s society.
Ultimately, the ideal result of having someone go through the prison system is to give them an opportunity to access rehabilitation and attempt to prevent future instances of offending (and to therefore build a safer society). If incarcerated people are expected to return to society and behave in ways society deems acceptable, then they should also have a say on how mainstream society is run in order to promote these goals.
One of the most difficult aspects of preventing reoffending is finding a way to make prosocial behaviour more accessible and rewarding than criminal behaviour. How do you reintegrate into society if you can’t get a job or afford rent?
Giving prisoners the right to vote doesn’t necessarily fix these issues, but nor does it mean they will suddenly decide how our society is run (for context, there are around 10,000 prisoners in New Zealand compared with 3,298,009 enrolled voters in the 2017 elections). What it will do, however, is make sure their voices are heard and send the message that we want them to engage in society in a positive way.
These people are still part of our society and having the right to vote goes a small way toward recognising this.