Essay on the Ballot Behind Bars
Number of words: 1371
The limitation of rights and fundamental freedoms is sometimes permissible in law. For example, the freedom of movement and association of prisoners is limited through operation of law as they serve their jail term. The question that arises is how to determine which rights can be rightly limited under various circumstances. In the case of prisoners there have been ongoing debates on whether their right to vote should also be limited. Felons have been disenfranchised for a long time and in many countries including the United States of America, wherein they are not allowed to vote while they serve their sentences. In some states, once one is convicted they permanently lose their right to vote. However, in the recent times, there has been increased public support in favor of the right of felons to vote. The position of the law regarding the limitation of any human rights, including the political rights of prisoners to vote, is that any given right can only be limited through the operation of a law that is fair and justifiable in an open democracy. This requirement is the premise upon which this paper proposes that inmates should be allowed to vote.
The principle argument in favor of allowing prisoners to vote is the recognition of the fact that prisoners remain citizens, even after their conviction. For purposes of including them in society, there is need for them to be able to exercise their political right to vote. If prisoners are disallowed from voting they remain in a state of civil death which was held in the decision of Hirst v United Kingdom to be inappropriate in a contemporary society which is committed to the principles of fairness, equality and democracy. The provision of Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires that all citizens including prisoners have a right to vote. Allowing them to participate in a democratic process such as voting encourages civil responsibility as it makes the citizens continue to see themselves as citizens of a given nation (Behan). It also reminds them that their citizenship is characterized with both burdens and benefits.
With regard to the issue of limitation of rights, denying prisoners the right to vote is disproportionate to the aims of incarceration and difficult to justify in law. The eighth amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America expressly prohibits excessive sanctions. It requires that the punishment meted out for any given offense should be graduated and proportionate to the offense committed. Therefore, all state laws that preclude prisoners from participating in democratic elections are in violation of this provision of the Constitution. Preventing prisoners from voting as a form of punishment is wrong because in most cases it bears no gravity to the type of crime an individual had committed or the gravity of the said offence. Given the fact that there are only a few prisoners who are incarcerated for election offences, denying them an opportunity to vote is tantamount to meting out a punishment that is unsuitable for the crimes that they were jailed for. This form of disenfranchisement creates a civil death which has serious social implications. Within the American criminal justice system, it is observable that ethnic minorities such as the African Americans are over-represented within correctional facilities (Behan). Consequently, this leads to inequality and disempowerment of these groups as many of them are denied the right to vote. Article 10(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that the treatment that is accorded to prisoners in a penitentiary system ought to achieve the essential aims of the criminal justice system that are reformation and social rehabilitation. Accordingly, disenfranchisement of prisoners by way of denying them the right to vote is not in line with these aims of the criminal justice system. There is no evidence which suggests that denying prisoners a right to vote helps to achieve these objectives.
On the same note, that the purpose of the justice system is to oversee that convicted criminals recognize their mistakes and reform accordingly. Ex-convicts are allowed to freely enjoy all other human rights such as the right to marry, to own property and even to drive. Neither do these individuals lose their freedom of worship or self-incrimination. Consequently, the assumption that these individuals cannot be trusted to assist in the selection of our leaders is misguided. Once they go through the criminal justice system, it is expected that they are reformed and they are better citizens (Behan). To say, that they should not be involved in a democratic process has the implication that the Criminal Justice System does not serve its purpose of rehabilitating criminals.
There is a growing view amongst many who are of the view that prisoners should not be allowed to vote, that allowing them to do so would be expensive. Those of this view suggest that given the expense involved, involving prisoners in elections is impractical and ethically unjustifiable. This is because, for example, most of them do not pay taxes. Taxpayers money is utilized to cater for the budget for elections and therefore they should not be involved owing to the fact that they do not make any contribution to the acquisition of the funds in question. This position is wrong because voting is a right of citizenship. For any nation to consider itself a democracy, the right to vote of all its citizens must be firmly protected. It must be established as an inalienable and universal principle that applies to all citizens who have attained the age of majority, without giving any consideration to their status in society. As American citizens all of us are entitled to various rights such as the rights such as the freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and all other freedoms that are enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The right to vote is also one of these. The claim that prisoners should be exempted from voting because it is expensive portrays the idea of choosing leaders as a privilege to them, which is not the case, for a democratic society like ours. Doing so would undermine respect for the rule of law, while allowing them to exercise their democratic freedom to choose their leaders would strengthen their social ties with society and increase their commitment to achieve common good. This, in the end will promote legally responsible participation within society by all persons, including inmates.
Besides the fact that voting is an inherent right by virtue of being citizens, another vital point to note is that voting enables prisoners to protect themselves. By voting prisoners are able to take part in national conversations which concern them both as general citizens and as prisoners. By entering the national political conversation through their votes inmates may be at a position to influence decisions regarding the conditions within which they live in prison facilities. Currently, prisoners have little political power, a situation which makes them vulnerable to the problem of dangerous prison condition- some of them are killed in poorly managed institutions without any political repercussions for the individuals who have designed, funded and administer the current prison systems. Their votes are therefore the political tools with which their voices can be heard and their issues resolved.
In conclusion, inmates should be allowed to vote while they are incarcerated and even when they leave prison. Voting is a right that each individual acquires by virtue of being a citizen and therefore it should not be taken away under any circumstance. In addition, the practice of felon disenfranchisement has been observed to impact minority communities disproportionately given the disproportionate rates of incarceration among various races in America. Notwithstanding, voting helps prisoners to protect themselves. All state or federal laws that support the prohibition of inmates from voting are also in violation of the Constitutional provision which requires that the punishment meted for crimes be proportionate to the offense committed and prohibits excessive punishment-preventing inmates from voting is thus unfair as they are already serving their terms for breaking the law.
Behan, Cormac. Citizen Convicts: Prisoners, Politics and the Vote. Amazon: Manchester University Press, 2017.