Right To Vote For All petition

The petition:


Right to Vote for All

Dear Hon. Andrew Little,

We are calling on the Government to enshrine voting rights for all people who are incarcerated.

In 2010 National MP Paul Quinn introduced a Member’s Bill to Parliament that saw the complete removal of voting rights for prisoners, regardless of how long the sentence. Since then, the Supreme Court has upheld the High Court’s ruling that limiting the right to vote for prisoners is a breach of the Bill of Rights, section 12(a).

Voting must belong to all of us for the health of our democracy, and removing basic rights should never be used as a means to punish people We are proud of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history – where people have successfully campaigned for the right to vote for all Māori and women. That legacy should not be thrown away lightly.

That’s why we are calling on the Government to amend the Electoral Act of 1993 and ensure that all New Zealanders are able to determine who represents them, and who makes the laws that govern them.

Why is this important?

We believe that in a fair and democratic society all members should have the right to vote, and people living in prisons are part of our society. They are valued members of communities and families. To take away their right to vote is an unfair disenfranchisement

We all expect that people in prison have the opportunity to heal and learn so they can contribute to a thriving society when they return to their communities. By not allowing people to vote while in prison, we are removing their ability to invest in and contribute to society and our democratic process. It’s cruel and counter-productive.

When Parliament changed the law in 2010 they used voting rights as a form of punishment, and this breaches the Bill of Rights. As New Zealanders we seek fairness and community. If we reinstate voting rights for people serving time in prison, it means that come next election time, thousands more people would be able to participate in our democracy, and put their ballot in the box as an investment in their – and our – futures.

We believe a thriving society requires the voices of all it’s people in order to make decisions that elevate everyone. By including everyone’s voices we can have a truly representative democracy.

Police and prisoner numbers

The new Government aims to increase police numbers and decrease prisoner numbers.

From the Labour-NZ First coalition agreement:

Strive towards adding 1800 new Police officers over three years and commit to a serious focus on combating organised crime and drugs.

Earlier this year the previous government had already committed to increasing police numbers:  Ten per cent more police to reduce crime

A $503 million package which includes increasing police staff and resources across the country will reduce crime and make our communities safer.

Police Minister Paula Bennett says the Safer Communities package announced today by the Prime Minister will provide an additional 1125 police staff over the next four years, including 880 sworn police officers.

I presume the new Government’s plans are on top of this. They also want to decrease prisoner numbers, which could be difficult if more police catch more criminals.

NZ Herald:  Govt wants to axe new prison and lower prison muster

Labour’s target is 30 per cent drop in prisoner numbers in 15 years.

The Labour-led Government wants to put the brakes on the burgeoning prison muster so it can axe plans for a new 1500-bed prison – expected to cost close to $1 billion.

The increase in remand prisoners has put pressure on the prison population in recent years and Corrections is now looming as a political battleground, with Opposition leader Bill English warning that it will test the Government.

The number of prisoners has risen since new laws in 2013 that made it tougher to grant bail, roughly doubling the number of remand prisoners to about 3000 today.

The prison muster yesterday was 10,457, well above justice sector forecasts and expected to keep rising.

Even if more police will eventually reduce crime the prisoner numbers are a problem now.

Last year the previous Government unveiled plans to add 1800 prison beds at a cost of $1 billion, with more double bunking in Ngawha Prison, a new 245-bed block in Mt Eden Prison, and the new 1500-bed prison.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said it was his “strong preference” not to build a new prison, which he called a symbol of the “abject failure of our criminal justice system”.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis echoed this sentiment, adding that construction work had yet to begin.

“I’m looking at all options to reduce the prison muster, so that it doesn’t end up being built. Officials are being sent away to work out what will have an immediate impact.

“We’ll rule out the stuff that won’t make New Zealand safer.”

Labour wants to lower the prison population by 30 per cent in 15 years, a target Little described as “ambitious”.

Little said he had no plans to revisit the bail laws, switching the focus to crime prevention, prisoner rehabilitation, and rolling out more therapeutic courts, which can divert offenders away from jail and into treatment if they plead guilty.

While all laudable goals none of that is likely to be easy or quick. They have to somehow deal with growing prisoner numbers now while trying to eventually reduce crime.

 

“Cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” of prisoners

Dealing with difficult prisoners intent on self harm is challenging, but basic human rights are a fundamental requirement for our prisons.

An investigation by the Ombudsman is causing a stir, and so it should.

Report: A question of restraint

Background

In 2007, the Ombudsmen were designated as one of the National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) under the Crimes of Torture Act (COTA), with responsibility for examining and monitoring the general conditions and treatment of detainees in New Zealand prisons.

This report details observations and findings relating to prisoners who have been considered at risk of suicide and self-harm, who are managed in At-Risk Units (ARUs) in New Zealand prisons; and focuses on the comprehensive inspections of five prison sites.

Summary of findings

  • Of the 18 prisons across the country, 14 have a designated ARU. At-Risk cells at best can be described as sparsely furnished rooms, which are constantly monitored by a live camera-feed, including the unscreened toilet. Staff of either sex, in the course of their work, can observe At-Risk prisoners in various states of undress. Prisoners’ clothing is removed on admission to ARUs and replaced with anti-rip gowns to minimise opportunities for self-harm.
  • Routines within ARUs are similar to the regimes within management/separates units.1 At-Risk prisoners are placed in isolation with limited interaction and therapeutic activities.
  • RU paperwork and directed segregation (for medical oversight) is not always fully completed and lacks specificity and personalisation.
  • Training for staff working in ARUs is basic.
  • Staff interactions with At-Risk prisoners are limited.
  • There were incidences of At-Risk prisoners being restrained on tie-down beds by their legs, arms and chest over prolonged periods.
  • There were incidences of At-Risk prisoners being restrained in waist restraints with their hands cuffed behind their backs.
  • We discovered incidences of tie-down beds and possibly waist restraints being used for behaviour modification purposes at some sites.
  • Prisons were not following their own procedures in respect of the application of mechanical restraints.
  • The interface between Corrections and Regional Forensic Psychiatric Services appears not to be working as effectively as it could. Gaps in service provision were evident.

I consider that the use of the tie-down bed and/or waist restraints in the circumstances of Prisoners A, B, C, D and E2 amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment for the purpose of Article 16 of the Convention against Torture. Furthermore, I believe the ability of prison staff to access footage of prisoners undertaking their ablutions constitutes degrading treatment or punishment under Article 16 of the Convention.

Corrections are in part defending what they did as necessary to protect prisoners from their own actions.

RNZ: Call to prosecute guards over tied-down inmate

 

Prisoners’ right to vote

The High Court has ruled that the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act 2010, that prevented prisoners from voting, was inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

Stuff: Prisoners should be allowed to vote: High Court

Justice Paul Heath formally declared the ban to be inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, which all laws should be in line with.

The declaration from the High Court was the first of its kind. It sends a formal message to Parliament that the law it passed was indefensible as it limited individual rights without reasonable justification.

Heath said the inconsistency arose in the “most fundamental aspect of a democracy…the right of all citizens to elect those who will govern on their behalf.”

The attorney-general had also found the law was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights before it was introduced.

It only just passed with Act’s support of National. Graeme Edgeler blogged Oops: how some prisoners serving life sentences get to vote

Back in late 2010, at the height of National’s attempts at bipartisan consensus for electoral law changes, the National Party, with support from the ACT Party (which spoke against, but voted in favour of the law) passed the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Act over opposition from every other party in Parliament.

There’s some other interesting claims in that post about sloppy legislation. Stuff:

As it stood, the law had “arbitrary consequences” in that a low-level offender given a short prison sentence could not vote if incarcerated on election day, while a serious offender imprisoned for 2-1/2 years between elections could still vote, Heath said.

The Government may or mat not address this ruling:

A spokesman for Justice Minister Amy Adams said Parliament had considered Bill of Rights implications when it passed the amendment in 2010.

“At this stage we’re still considering the judgment but it’s worth noting that, as the judge has stated, the finding that a piece of legislation breached the Bill of Rights Act does not invalidate the legislation.”

But it should prompt the Government to seriously consider changing the law.

University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis said the Government and Parliament should decide “whether or not they think the law is worth it.”

“In the end, Parliament is sovereign and can do what it wants, so if Parliament wants to take a different view on this issue it can, but I think it really ought to re-examine this issue given the strength of the notice that has been given.”

In practice, it would boil down to how embarrassed the Government would be about the issue, Geddis said.

“They’ve essentially been told they’ve made law that good nations like New Zealand shouldn’t make – but do they care?”

At a deeper level, it was the first time the High Court had issued a formal declaration of inconsistency with the Bill of Rights Act, which was an “official notice” to Parliament that the law they had passed was “bad law,” Geddis said.

It’s hard to know why the Government would try and retain legislation that probably wouldn’t pass in the current Parliament and that seems to be fundamentally flawed.

Prisoner reoffending reform

In a pre-budget announcement Corrections ministers have commited to spending on reform targetting reducing prisoner reoffending by 25%. This is a big target, but it’s well known that rehabilitation has not been given anywhere enough attention.

Budget 2012: $65m on reducing reoffending

Corrections Minister Anne Tolley and Associate Corrections Minister Dr Pita Sharples said the ‘reprioritised’ operational funding was aimed at reducing reoffending by 25 per cent by 2017.

It would go towards alcohol and drug treatment, increased education, skills training and employment programmes for prisoners.

Mrs Tolley said the funding would mean 18,500 fewer victims of crime and 600 less prisoners in jail in 2017 than last year.

“It’s time to get serious about breaking this vicious cycle of prison and reoffending.

Dr Sharples said represented a shift towards the rehabilitation and restoration of prisoners to their whanau and communities.

“This is a more humane response to offending, and it is cheaper and more effective.

As usual the media has found people who are able to find something critical about this, but it’s more interesting to see who is supporting it – the Howard League for penal reform, who’s chief executive is well known Labour official Mike Williams.

Howard League backs reform plan

Oppostion parties, a drug and alcohol counsellor and the Corrections Association are skeptical about whether a 25% reduction can be achieved.

But Howard League chief executive Mike Williams says international research shows such programmes work.

The Government says the target is bold but achievable.

The Corrections Department says it can achieve a 25% reduction in prisoner reoffending by 2017.

Chief executive Ray Smith says currently about 27% of prisoners reoffend when released and are back in prison within one year.

He wants this number to reduce to about 20% and says providing more participation in programmes for prisoners will lessen the likelihood of reoffending.

This sounds like an overdue no-brainer.

Jobs needed first

New Zealand First says the Government needs to create jobs for prisoners if it wants to reduce reoffending. Corrections spokesperson Asenati Lole-Taylor says there must be jobs for prisoners when they are released.

But Labour says jobs are scarce in the current economic climate, so finding work for ex-inmates is going to be difficult.

Of course proper rehabilitation means getting ex prisoners into jobs, and they can be hard to find, but it’s nonsense waiting until there are enough jobs – when will that be? Why can’t reducing reoffending and increasing jobs happen concurrently?

This is a good example of parties working together in coalition, with the support of organisastions and people, where the priority is on finding what is most likley to work best, without getting bogged down with politics.

Reducing prisoner reoffending will result in whole of society benefits – less tax to fund police, courts and prisons, and less victims of crimes.