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Thursday, 13 December 2018 11:08 am

‘Knee-jerk’ prisoner voting law damages society, say advocates

RETHINKING JUSTICE: Ced Simpson says New Zealand's crime policy should not be the result of knee-jerk reactions. IMAGE: Tess Nichol

RETHINKING JUSTICE: Ced Simpson says New Zealand’s crime policy should not be the result of knee-jerk reactions. IMAGE: Tess Nichol

BANNING prisoners from voting is an example of how the criminal justice system is hung up on punishing, rather than rehabilitating.

Ex-prisoner Paul Wood, says New Zealand is missing easy chances to help prisoners feel connected to wider society, which could reduce re-offending.

“I think it’s sad that we as a society are not taking opportunities to do something positive,” says Dr Wood.

“Anything that we within the prisons can be doing which supports the idea of personal and collective responsibility is something which should be encouraged,” he says.

Dr Wood spent nearly 11 years in prison after being convicted of murdering his drug dealer in 1995.

He pursued a degree in psychology while in prison, completing his PhD in the discipline after his release and now works as a life coach.

He says criminal re-offending is more likely when prisoners are released into a society they don’t feel part of.

“The more alienated people are from society, the easier it is to maintain the mindsets and the attitudes which facilitate criminal offending.”

Dr Wood says people who can mentally distance themselves from their victims are more likely to commit crimes.

“One of the ways in which you engage in crime is by dehumanising those that you are committing crimes against.”

“By providing people an opportunity to connect with others more broadly in the sense of voting, you reduce the likelihood that they can use those psychological rationalisations that enable them to commit those kinds of crimes,” he says.

Voting rights for prisoners was brought to attention at the end of January this year when career criminal Arthur Taylor took a case against John Key to Auckland’s High Court.

Mr Taylor argues the Prime Minister shouldn’t have been elected in Helensville, as Auckland Prison inmates were denied their right to vote. The judges have reserved their decision in the case.

He says it should not be up to politicians to decide who can or cannot vote for them and that denying prisoners the vote sets a dangerous precedent.
Currently New Zealand law dictates that any citizen in prison on Election Day does not have the right to vote.

The Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act was passed in 2010 and has received little push-back from the general public.

Paul Wood says people tend to feel indifferent about prisoner rights because of a knee-jerk reaction which favours punishing those who break the law.

“I understand that a lot of people operate on an emotive response when it comes to anything to do with crime or criminality.”

“At the moment we have a fixation on process, i.e. punishment,” he says.

However he says punishment is not an effective motivator when it comes to crime.

“We’ve got decades and decades of research to show that punishment does not in any way reduce the likelihood of reoffending, or prevent crimes either.”

Rethinking Crime and Punishment director Ced Simpson says a well-informed public could be the key to changing laws relating to prisoners’ rights.

“People don’t know much about our criminal justice system, they don’t know much about the shape of our population that’s in detention.”

Rethinking Crime and Punishment is an initiative aiming to promote policy which reduces crime and social harm by increasing public discussion about the current state of the criminal justice system.

He says Ministry of Justice research has found that people’s attitudes change when they are better informed.

“They are not generally as punitive as people might imagine. When they have the facts of a situation they tend to be more forgiving.”

“We have a long history of legislation in criminal justice coming about as a result of knee-jerk responses to particular incidents and that’s not the way to build policy.”

In June 2014, more than 8500 New Zealanders were locked up and over half of them were Maori, despite Maori making up just 15 per cent of the population overall.

Mr Simpson says it is important to consider racial implications when discussing the right of prisoners to vote.

“When you see how disproportionately likely Maori and Pacific Islanders are to be in detention then you have to ask yourself, don’t they have a valid perspective?”

Mr Simpson says he also has concerns with the way the law operates in reality.

“When you consider that some people on community service have the right to vote, for example, and they’ve been responsible for the same offence as people in prison, you have to ask yourself well is that fair, does that make sense,” he says.

He says someone on parole for a violent offence would be allowed to vote, while someone in prison on Election Day for a less serious crime would not be.

“These inconsistencies become a bit worrying.”

Most prisoners are not irredeemably bad people, says Mr Simpson, and the law should reflect that.

He says people can get hung up on the idea of needing to restrict the liberties of the most notorious violent offenders, like Clayton Weatherston.

“Nearly all the poster people that the public give attention to are not the typical prisoner.”

“The typical prisoner unfortunately is someone who was abused as a kid or someone who for a relatively short period of time has been swayed by their peers as early adults to do stupid things, or someone who hasn’t got good defence council.”

Like Dr Wood, Mr Simpson says voting is a way to help prisoners connect with and eventually successfully re-integrate into society.

“If we want prisoners to reintegrate into society as responsible citizens then part of that is them taking up the duties of citizenship, including voting.”

“To take that away seems to argue against that.”


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