Friday, July 29, 2005

Harmful, Undeserved Punishment

US: Nearly five million American citizens are denied the right to vote - one of every 50 citizens. That includes 13 percent of all African-American men nationwide, up to almost twice that percentage in particular states and the majority of adults - black and white -- in some inner city neighborhoods.

All have been found guilty of committing felonies. Some are in prison, some on probation, some on parole. One-third are neither prisoners nor on probation or parole, but nevertheless remain disenfranchised because they are ex-convicts.

Fourteen of the state laws that govern such matters bar ex-cons from ever voting. Others restore their voting rights after waiting periods of several years following completion of their sentences or leave that decision to the governor or state legislature. Only about a third of the states allow offenders to vote while on parole or probation, and only two - Maine and Vermont - allow them to vote while they're still in prison.

It perhaps makes sense to deny the vote to prisoners as part of their punishment, but otherwise the laws make no sense. Once the offenders' sentences are completed, once they've paid their debt to society, there's no moral or legal justification for further punishment. What's needed, often badly needed, is rehabilitation. Ideally, ex-cons should re-enter society quickly as actively participating citizens with all the rights of citizenship.

"Voting is a fundamental right in a democracy, it's not a privilege," notes Joseph "Jazz" Hayden, an ex-con who's one of leaders of a movement to grant voting rights to all offenders. "In prison you lose your liberty, but you don't lose your citizenship."

Of course it's quite possible that some, maybe many, ex-cons might not want to become good citizens. But if they aren't even allowed to try, if they are forced to remain voiceless in the critical matter of choosing political leaders, if they are to be taxed without representation, it gives them all the more reason to remain alienated from others and resume their anti-social conduct.

Lawmakers in every other industrialized nation understand this. They may deny the vote to offenders convicted of election fraud or other official corruption, but otherwise generally allow convicts and ex-convicts to vote.

What's more, polls show that the American public overwhelmingly supports granting voting rights to all convicted felons once their sentences are served.

But though the restrictions on voting have been eased in a handful of states, the vast majority of cons and ex-cons are still being denied the full rights of citizenship - and their numbers have been soaring, thanks largely to the steep and steady increase in convictions for drug-related offenses.

Fear of being perceived as "soft on crime" meanwhile has kept most politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, from extending any rights to any felons, past, present or future.

That public opinion nevertheless favors extending the rights is indicative of what sociologist Chris Uggen of the University of Minnesota describes as a culture clash that's pitting "two social trends against each other - the tough-on-crime movement against the expansion of civil rights."

Studies by Uggen show that felons' votes could be decisive in tight elections. He found that if ex-cons had been allowed to vote in Florida, where they are barred for life from voting, Democrat Al Gore would have won the state and thus the presidency in 2000. Uggen also found that if felons nationwide had been allowed to vote in congressional races, Democrats probably would now control the Senate. It's true, at any rate, that a high proportion of felons are from minority groups that typically vote heavily Democratic.

Ironically, many of the state laws limiting felons' voting rights stem from those used in southern states after the Civil War to deny the vote to the African-Americans who had just been freed from slavery. The laws, which kept even those with only minor criminal records from voting, were later used along with poll taxes and literacy tests to keep most black southerners from the polls.

And now we're using the laws to deny votes to 1.4 million African-American citizens and to more than 3.5 million other citizens. Many undoubtedly did commit serious crimes and should be punished for it, but none deserve the penalty of losing their vote, a loss that does great and unnecessary harm to them and to all of society.



How Denying the Vote to Ex-Offenders Undermines Democracy
For starters, hundreds of thousands of people who are still eligible to vote will not do so this year because they will be locked up in local jails, awaiting processing or trials for minor offenses.

Prisoners must get right to vote, says court
UK: The government will be forced to lift a ban on prisoners voting dating back to 1870 after the European court of human rights ruled yesterday it breached a lifer's human rights.

Fighting for Florida: Disenfranchised Florida Felons Struggle to Regain Their Rights US: TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Jeb Bush looked out over a roomful of felons appealing to him for something they had lost, and tried to reassure them.

Felons and the Right to Vote One of the greatest achievements of the civil rights struggle was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed most of the obstacles that kept African Americans away from the ballot box and enabled Americans who did not speak English to vote. But the voting rights movement never reached the last excluded segment of our democracy: our prisoners.

Justice Action: Access to our community
NSW: Justice Action went to the NSW Supreme Court before the last Federal election on the constitutional right for prisoners to receive information for their vote. The government avoided the hearing by bringing prisoners' mobile polling booths forward. We pursued it after the election. This is the report.

There was high drama as the only state prisons department in Australia to refuse the The Australian Prisoners' Election Newspaper, was challenged in an emergency hearing before the NSW Supreme Court.

Australian voters have been blocked from receiving 'how to vote' material from the political parties.

Emergency Supreme Court action for prisoners' vote
Renowned constitutional lawyer, George Williams QC, assisted by Ben Zipser of Selborne Chambers and Joanne Moffit of Kingsford Legal Centre will argue for the right of prisoners to receive voting information in the form of The Australian Prisoners' Election Newspaper. The newspaper has been banned by the prisons commissioner, Mr. Ron Woodham. No explanation has been given.

RE: URGENT - Prisoner enrolment to vote!
Justice Action has been talking to the Australian Electoral Commission over the past three weeks about what steps were being taken to ensure that prisoners were given the opportunity to enrol to vote in the Australian Election on October 9.

Prisoner's right to vote attacked again!
On the eve of the election the Howard government has rushed a new law into the Parliament which will further remove the rights of prisoners to vote.

Howard wants prisoner vote ban
Politicians opposed to a federal government plan to ban all prisoners from voting were soft on crime, Special Minister for State Eric Abetz said.

Govt moves to strip prisoners' voting rights
The Australian Council for Civil Liberties has condemned a Federal Government move to stop prisoners voting. Under current laws, prisoners serving less than five years can vote.