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MPs risk dismissing Bill of Rights over prison vote rights

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Paul Quinn
Paul Quinn

By Maggie Tait of NZPA

Wellington, July 21 NZPA - A bill to strip prisoners on short sentences of their rights to vote should be scrapped unless MPs want to show they have no respect for the Bill of Rights, the Chief Human Rights Commissioner says.

A civil liberties campaigner went even further saying the bill should be rewritten to instead give all prisoners the right to vote rather than strip those serving for three or less years of the ability which is the aim of a bill Parliament's law and order select committee is considering.

The member's bill was drafted by National Party MP Paul Quinn, who doesn't think a person in prison for just a day should be allowed to vote.

Under current law prisoners serving a sentence of three years or more are disqualified.

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan said the commission strongly opposed the bill. It was inconsistent with international human rights standards which New Zealand adopted and was in breach of the Bill of Rights Act.

"It's not preventing crime or keeping people safe which would be a valid incentive. It seems to us completely at odds with the rehabilitation of offenders which requires that they have a sense of connection with their community and with society."

There was no evidence of a need for change.

"The justification is like people are catching at straws."

Ms Noonan said as New Zealand had no special select committee responsible for overseeing human rights each select committee had that role.

"I think that you particularly need to exercise that responsibility in this case because I would like to respectfully suggest that to proceed with this bill in this form really would be tantamount to dismissing the Bill of Rights as of any value in your assessment, and I don't say that lightly."

She said under international jurisprudence a case could be made for removing the right of more serious offenders to vote but that did not allow blanket denial to anyone in prison.

Kevin McCormack of the New Zealand Council of Civil Liberties obtained Corrections Department information which showed in November 2008, when the last election was held, there were 6177 sentenced and 1759 remand prisoners, with 2809 were sentenced to three years or less. At that date 4460 prisoners were eligible to vote, including people on remand.

He said over the past 17 years that prisoners on short sentences were able to vote there was no negative effect and widening it to all prisoners would not be detrimental either.

"This is a rare opportunity to take something potentially punitive and turn it into something actively humanitarian."

ACT MP David Garrett was unimpressed.

"Do you believe that people like William Bell and Graeme Burton and those of that ilk should be voting on how the country is run?"

Mr McCormack said that the votes would have minimal influence and many prisoners would not bother to vote, but if they did that was the price of democracy.

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