23 Nov 2019

Justice Minister announces prisoners serving less than three years in jail will have voting rights restored

8:45 pm on 23 November 2019

Justice Minister Andrew Little has announced prisoners sentenced to less than three years in jail will have their voting rights restored.

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Andrew Little said the government plans to make the change before the next election. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Mr Little said the government plans to make the change to the Electoral Amendment Bill before the 2020 general election.

The law change will affect 1900 prisoners and means the law will return to how it was before a National-led government removed voting rights from all prisoners in 2010.

A Waitangi Tribunal report found that law change disproportionally impacted Māori prisoners and a High Court declaration stated the current law is inconsistent with the right to vote in the Bill of Rights Act.

Mr Little said the three-year jail sentence threshold means prisoners will be able to vote on the government that will be in power when they are released.

"It is right that someone who is going to be released back into the community during a Parliamentary term should have the right to have a say on who leads them during their time of freedom," Mr Little said in a statement.

Mr Little said the law change will also address concerns that prisoners are not re-enrolling to vote once they leave prison.

"The Waitangi Tribunal noted this means the law is effectively acting as a permanent ban on voting for prisoners. To address this, the law will also be changed so that longer-term prisoners will be enrolled on release.

"This will ensure people sentenced to three years or more in prison can re-engage with the democratic process as easily as possible."

Mr Little said the government wants to help prisoners be productive citizens upon their release.

"Taking away their rights to vote doesn't do that and so this hopefully will restore a sense of citizenship and remind them that they are a part of a community that they have responsibilities to."

Green Party spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman has welcomed the change and said this country should be a place where everyone has the right to cast a vote.

"Considering our proud history fighting for the women's right to vote, I think many would be shocked to hear that right now incarcerated New Zealanders, predominantly Māori, are deprived of this basic liberty."

The justice system must help those in prison reintegrate back into communities, Ms Ghahraman said.

"We know any measure that strips human rights or disconnects people from society undermines those important aims."

There was a long way to go to ensure equal access to democracy, Ms Ghahraman said. But this is a good start, she added.

Opposition leader Simon Bridges said if re-elected, the National Party would reverse the government's law change allowing some prisoners to vote.

In a post on Twitter, Mr Bridges said the law change proves the government is soft on crime and more focused on criminals than victims.

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