Monday, September 26, 2011

The dangers of prisoner disqualification

Last year, the National-ACT government passed the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act 2010, which disqualified serving prisoners from voting in elections. At the time, people criticised the law as undemocratic and arbitrary; not only did it strip people of the right to vote, but it did it on an arbitrary basis: not the severity of your crime, but whether you happened to be in prison on election day.

But there are other consequences as well: you need to be a registered elector if you want to stand for Parliament, so the law also prevents anyone who happens to be in prison on nomination day from contesting elections. And there's a good example of this happening at the moment. Earlier in the year, ALCP member Dakta Green was sentenced to eight month's imprisonment for running a cannabis club. Short sentences are automatically halved in practice, so he will be released on October 29. Nomination day is November 1st, so all going well he will be able to take his expected place on the ALCP list. But if his sentencing hearing had been delayed by a few days, he would have been barred from election.

That's a nice demonstration of arbitrariness, and the possible effects of the law on minor crimes, but it gets worse. You see, the Police are appealing Green's sentence, saying it was too short. If it is lengthened, then he will be unable to stand. Which is quite possibly the point of the exercise. The police have made it very clear that they do not like people working democratically for changes to our drug laws, and have been quite willing in the past to abuse their powers to prevent such advocacy. This just looks like more of the same. Except now they're directly interfering in the electoral process.

Other people might not mind too much of Green is barred from standing. After all, he's just a list candidate for a minor party which never gets any votes anyway (though more than the Libertarianz and the Alliance, which some people take seriously). But this is our democracy we're talking about. And in a democracy, the police don't get to veto potential candidates based on whether they like their political position.

The prisoner disqualification law is arbitrary, undemocratic, and now demonstrably dangerous and open to abuse. It has to go.