Opinion: Allowing Prisoners To Vote In Elections

February 20, 2015

[Opinion column written by Jonathan Starling]

As the UK gears up for its first general election under their new fixed-terms election system [which raises another question of where the OBA’s promised political reforms on this are…], the issue of voting rights for prisoners has flared back into the news.

This, too, was an issue that was raised in the run-up to our last general election in 2012 – and on which there’s been no subsequent mention thereof.

Rights for prisoners is almost certain to elicit an emotive response from large sections of our society who would seek to sidestep any substantive look at the structural problems in our society and how these influence crime. It’s far too easier to adopt a reactionary ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ attitude here. It lets politicians sound tough, and attempt to benefit, in theory, at the ballot box for being ‘tough on crime’ – regardless of the long-term consequences [often counter-productive] of such reactionary rhetoric.

I think it’s really a question of how do we frame the issue of rights for prisoners and, more fundamentally, the role of prisons in the first place.

If we were to adopt an almost medieval approach [remember the ducking stool, the stocks and those other public spectacles of the gallows and public executions], the role of prison is that of society taking revenge – even to the point of humiliating – those who society judges to have transgressed social norms. It is this mentality that ultimately leads to those calling for a return to corporal and capital punishment. This is an inherently punitive approach to justice based on fear and the desire for revenge.

I would argue that rather than advocating a prison system founded on some perverse social or individual desire for revenge, prison should, for the most part be based fundamentally on the idea of rehabilitation and allowing prisoners – once they’ve done their time – to be constructive and able members of society.

While I readily accept that such an ideal will not be applicable to all persons convicted, I do believe it should be the underlying philosophy for the vast majority of prisoners.

Based on that ideal – of prison for the purpose of rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society – then I think a blanket ban on prisoners regarding the right to vote is inherently counterproductive.

After all, if we want prisoners to successfully reintegrate into society and be productive full members of our society, then allowing some of them the right to vote can actually be part of a successful rehabilitation strategy.

Far too often sections of our society feel alienated from society – and this alienation may even contribute to anti-social behaviour. Does it not make sense then to empower them to re-connect with society and take an active participatory role in our society – of which the vote is perhaps the most fundamental within our democracy?

Now, to be clear, I’m not calling for a blanket vote for all prisoners, although an argument could be made for that.

However, I think it is right to actively consider removing the blanket removal of voting rights for all prisoners. In particular, prisoners with a sentence – or a remaining sentence – of, say, a year or less, should have a right to vote in elections, based on the constituency of their previous registration.

Right now, based on my understanding of the legislation, those currently imprisoned, and including those on parole, are currently disqualified from voting in parliamentary elections.

I propose the following amendment to the Parliamentary Elections Act 1978 to allow prisoners with less than twelve months left on their sentence [and as such, any person with a sentence less than twelve months or on parole] the right to participate in parliamentary elections.

I recognise this will draw an emotive response from many, but I believe it is the right thing to do as a small part of facilitating the rehabilitation of prisoners and their transition to constructive members of society.

Parliamentary Election [Prisoners] Amendment Act follows below [PDF here]:

- Jonathan Starling

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Comments (19)

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  1. Coffee says:

    That’s a basic human right , just like giving status to folk who’ve by right or might stayed in Bermuda to long .

  2. Lynne Winfield says:

    Jonathan Starling has brought up an important issue, and his call for a less punitive system of justice is one that is reflected in the worldwide movement to restorative justice in criminal justice systems. A movement within our prison system towards increased rehabilitation has led to a low of 34% recidivism and Commissioner Lamb and his staff are to be congratulated. Chief Magistrate Juan Wolffe and his team at Bermuda’s Drug Treatment Court are having remarkable success in using restorative justice. This is proven because 75 per cent of its clients do not reoffend after completing the programme. A move towards relaxing the voting rights for prisoners is another step towards restorative justice, allowing prisoners and those out on parole to be contributing members of society.

    • serengetiperson says:

      And when those people are no longer convicted prisoners, and have served their sentence fair and square, they can again vote.
      There is absolutely nothing wrong with the way it works now.

  3. Family Man says:

    Please Comrade, Scotland needs you more than we do.

  4. Triangle Drifter says:

    Oh he!! no. Even when released some should not get the vote back. Drug importers & murderers come to the top of the list.

  5. hmmm says:

    Disagree.

    The distraction of politics, propaganda, divisivness and false hate that is spewed by some people in order to twist minds in order to regain power can derail their focus.

    The propaganda gives them a false excuse, an easy out to blame others and not recognize that it was themselves, not society that made the wrong choices in life.

    So I disagree with prisoners being afforded the right to vote.

    There are more important things for their focus in order to be successful in and as a part of society upon release.

    Using them as a political football is quite disgusting Chris Famous, you should be ashamed.

  6. hmmm says:

    Will you look at that I made a mistake…my apologies to Chris Famous…shame on you JS.

    • Coffee says:

      That is no mistake … Your unbridled dislike of Chris Famous is all consuming , but I’m glad that he lives rent free in your head !

  7. Civy Says says:

    Restorative justice for many crimes have a better outcome for the victim,the offender and society. Voting for prisoners provide the chance for offenders to be re-connected to their society and plant seeds of self-worth. Alternatives to incarceration has also been proven to be superior than traditional lock-ups in many other jurisdictions (of course there are limitations and certain crimes will not qualify for alternatives). The evidence is there, it has been laid before our politicians, however they are not willing to face an emotive electorate who are not informed about these practices. Thanks for starting the conversation.

  8. Yahoo says:

    I didn’t read it because he never has anything positive or useful to say. Nothing personal against you, I don’t know you.

  9. aceboy says:

    Just handing votes to the PLP. That is all this will accomplish. Not surprised to see who is advocating this.

  10. Hmmm says:

    Hey Jonathan Starling and Chris Famous,

    Why aren’t your opinion columns demanding that the unions filed their accounts, show accountibility to their membership and why aren’t you up in arms on the tiny vote that rubber stamped the already decided salary.

    Time you asked questions about all that and demanded accountibility.

    Public is waiting.

  11. Navin Johnson says:

    Voting is not a basic rite and should be forfeited for Prisoners as a crimes against society..give it back to the upon release

    • Civy Says says:

      Tell the Black people of the south that voting isn’t a basic right. The fact that large percentages of people incarcerated in Bermuda have reading and learning disabilities, are black and male….are telling of an institutional injustice that has taken the basic rights from many of Bermuda’s own people.

  12. Billy Mays says:

    Bermuda doesn’t even allow BERMUDIANS living abroad to vote! How on earth does that make sense? It doesn’t. Felons should not have more rights than law-abiding citizens. Period. That’s a cost of the crime.