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Let inmates keep the right to vote

The election is over, the race was extremely tight, and the new One Bermuda Alliance-led Government begins its journey to represent the people of Bermuda. The OBA leadership often spoke to the need to represent all people, even those who did not vote for them, and CURB hopes that this leadership will include many of the talking points put forward prior to the election in CURB’s Racial Justice Platform.

One of those talking points was “Voting rights for those legally detained” specifically CURB believes that denying voting rights to those people who are paying or have paid their debt to society offends basic tenets of democracy.

Why is it that when voting rights for prisoners or those on parole are mentioned, reasonable people become overly irate? Why is it that when a citizen commits a crime against society we demand he forfeits the right to take part in a basic belief of an enlightened democracy; the right to elect our government? Part of the problem is that as a post-slavery, post-segregation society our justice system was and still is based on punitive measures, and that as a society we have internalised punishment as the best method of control. CURB strongly believes that we need to move to a restorative justice approach, which focuses on healing all those affected by the harm crime causes, including the victim, the offenders, their families and the community. In those countries such as Canada and New Zealand where the restorative justice approach has been used, they have seen dramatic decreases in recidivism.

Historically both here and in the United States, the justice system was used during slavery and segregation as a means to control and distribute power. And in Bermuda immediately after Emancipation, legislation was enacted to disenfranchise black Bermudians from voting i.e. an Act (1834) was passed to fix qualifications for jurors, voters, electors and candidates and positions of trust, and the voting qualifications were raised, effectively preventing most black Bermudians from voting and being elected to the House for almost 50 years until 1883 when William ER Joell became the first Black MCP. With a legacy of voter disenfranchisement and the justice system that supported it, we must unequivocally seek to uphold the right for one man one vote.

The European Court of Human Rights stance on prisoners’ voting rights is clear and in 2005 ruled in favour of giving English prisoners the right to vote, saying the disenfranchisement of 48,000 prisoners in British jails violated the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court said that with the exception of the right to liberty, lawfully detained prisoners must continue to enjoy all the rights guaranteed in the Convention, including political rights. The Council of Europe issued an unprecedented warning to the British government to take urgent steps to enable prisoners to vote in forthcoming general elections or face thousands more compensation claims.

Over 5.3 million Americans have lost the right to vote (ACLU) and the US is now swimming against a tide of overwhelming international opinion on this issue and stands alone among first world democracies for denying the vote to so many felons and ex-felons for such long periods of time.

The following countries allow prisoners to vote: Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Albania, Croatia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, France, Israel, Japan, Lithuania, Kenya, Macedonia, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Ireland, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Sweden and Switzerland. In South Africa, soon after the dismantling of apartheid, the Constitutional Court declared the disfranchisement of prisoners as unconstitutional. (Note a few of these countries do not allow criminals who commit fraud or extreme crimes of violence to vote).

European countries that do not allow prisoners to vote are: Belarus, Estonia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia, Kosovo, Latvia, Modovia, Slovakia, and Spain.

With high rates of recidivism, allowing prisoners/parolees to vote has benefits. Research by sociologists Jeff Manza and Chris Uggen (2006) suggests that persons involved in the criminal justice system who vote may have lower rates of recidivism. Encouraging prisoners in civilising patterns of behaviour that allow them to participate in a democratic political process provides a positive role model for future behaviour. Outreach to the prison community during the election process provides education and an example of community that is of rehabilitative value. Our current legislation denying voting rights to prisoners/parolees affirms inmates’ convictions that society does not care for them or value their opinions or worth to society. The crippling cost to Bermuda of high rates of recidivism is another reason for encouraging commitment to community by inmates/parolees. How can we attempt the process of rehabilitation when we deny this basic human right to those in prison? Yes, they are being punished for a crime against society, but they still remain citizens of Bermuda with legitimate human rights, including the right to vote.

How many do we imprison for relatively minor offences, e.g. possession of marijuana for personal use, in the full knowledge that very few of these offenders pose any real threat to the public? How many do we imprison who are disproportionately from areas of multi-deprivation and/or stemming directly from poverty, abuse or mental problems? More often than not crimes are born of a complicated mixture of social/emotional factors, with many claiming that the crime was out of character, or an error of judgment under pressure.

Generations of families have had to endure the pain of seeing a beloved relative sent to prison, often for a victimless crime. These families are victims too, losing a father, brother, sister and often a breadwinner, which places the families more firmly into the cycle of poverty.

If individuals break the law, imprisonment is our society’s way of punishing, however unless we are willing to provide hope to those in prison, there will be little chance of them ever being able to break cycles of criminal behaviour. For the majority of those in our prisons today, they will be back in society in a few years at most, and if we as a society have failed to take the necessary steps to restore them to society with hope, encouragement and assistance for a better future, then we will continue to watch crime increase and recidivism continue at its current rate.

We are not like the United States, where those who come out of prison can chose to disappear, move to a new State, and leave the community they used to live in order to try and create a new life elsewhere. In Bermuda, once they have paid their price to society by serving prison time, they move right back into our small community. Denied the opportunity for the rest of their lives to travel to or through the US or be educated there, facing uphill struggles to obtain employment and housing. As a society we must find ways to help them reintegrate into community and become productive citizens, for their sakes and ours.

Very few criminals currently resident in Bermuda’s prisons are truly evil. Like most countries in the world, many come from disadvantage, were young, or had little opportunity and made wrong choices. If we want our society to have justice, fairness and compassion, then this must be extended to those serving time for their crimes. We must provide training, educational opportunities and support not only for the prisoners, but also the prison officers who have been entrusted with their care.

Restorative justice respects the dignity and equality of each person, builds understanding, and promotes social harmony through the healing of victims, offenders and communities, and CURB believes that we need to move to a national strategy and policies for the development of restorative practices throughout the Bermuda criminal justice system.

We call on the new government as they take their first steps in representing us all, to continue to promote and investigate Restorative Justice approaches to the Criminal Justice System and give the vote to those in prison or on parole. Giving prisoners the right to vote is a question of moral conscience not political conscience. If they are excluded from this basic human right, then we fail as a democratic society.

Lynne Winfield is a member of Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda (CURB).

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Published December 20, 2012 at 8:00 am (Updated December 19, 2012 at 4:43 pm)

Let inmates keep the right to vote

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