Friday, September 18, 2009

Compare and contrast

New Zealand prides itself on being not just a democracy, but one of the best democracies in the world. When we compare ourselves to the US, the UK, and even Australia, our democratic institutions come out as more representative, more responsive, and hence more democratic. But there is one significant flaw we continue to share with these countries: like the rest of the Anglosphere, we deny the citizenship of prisoners. Those sentenced to long-term imprisonment are denied the vote in New Zealand.

Compare this with Norway - a country already noted for its humane (and effective) prison system. There, prisoners not only get to vote - politicians hold TV debates in prisons. And that's not all:

The topic was crime policy and – so far so normal – it featured a panel of politicians discussing the best ways to reduce crime. But the live TV show was set inside a high security prison, the audience consisted exclusively of guards and prisoners, with one inmate, Bjørnar Dahl, taking part in the panel alongside the justice minister and the deputy leader of the main opposition party.
This was not a stunt - it is a completely normal part of the Norwegian political system. And one benefit is to inject a healthy dose of reality into the debate on crime and punishment, from people who know about it: the criminals:
Dahl, who is serving a five-year sentence for complicity in smuggling amphetamines, stole the show. When the representative from the populist Progress party, Per Sandberg, argued that there was an increase in criminality in Norway caused by gangs of Eastern Europeans organising beggars in the streets of Oslo, Dahl dismissed him as talking "crap" and asked him whether he had any knowledge of the situations the beggars were coming from.

When Sandberg tried to argue that the solution to reduce drug abuse in prisons was to increase the level of control on inmates, Dahl shot back: "We're controlled from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. I get strip-searched every time I have a visit and all my phone calls are monitored. You can't have more control than we have now."

It is, sadly, hard to imagine this happening in New Zealand. Politicians and the public aren't interested in seeing prisoners as part of society, and they certainly aren't interested in hearing about the utter ineffectiveness of their metapolicy of increasing viciousness. This is hugely counterproductive. Cutting people off from society does not help them re-integrate when they are released (quite the opposite, in fact). And sentences being finite, everyone will be released one day.

The current policy is not only contrary to the democratic imperative to give everyone with an interest in our society a say in how it is run - it is also simply stupid. We should change it. And the first step is I think to give prisoners the vote.