Sydney Criminal Lawyers: NSW Should Extend Voting Rights to All Inmates to Better Serve the Community

Currently, individuals incarcerated in NSW serving sentences of 12 months or more are ineligible to vote in state elections. However, federally, these restrictions only apply to those sentenced to at least three years of imprisonment. This discrepancy has prompted questions from civil rights groups in NSW, who are now urging the government to address this disparity and advocate for equal voting rights for all incarcerated individuals, regardless of the length of their sentence.

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties is among these groups. NSWCCL holds the position that inmates should not be denied the right to participate in this fundamental democratic process. Not only is this denial contrary to any potential rehabilitative outcomes that detention might serve for an inmate, but it also harms society as a whole.

NSWCCL president Lydia Shelley put this proposition to the Administration of the 2023 NSW state election and other matters inquiry last Friday, as the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters considers a range of electoral-related issues in the wake of the March 2023 election.

NSWCCL is not alone in its calls: a NSWCCL tweet announcing the inquiry hearing, included the X handles of committee members from across the political spectrum, and NSW Greens MLC Cate Faerhmann responded to affirm that her party shares the position.

“People sentenced to prison are deprived of their liberty, but they shouldn’t be deprived of their right to have a voice as part of a society that, in the vast majority of cases, they will rejoin,” Shelley said in a statement prior to last Friday’s committee hearing.

“The right to vote is just one of a range of human rights, such as freedom of speech and rights to associate, assemble and protest, that are fundamental to democracy,” the NSWCCL president added. “We should not support governments that seek to exclude certain groups from voting.”

“We should not support laws that seek to exclude certain groups from being able to vote,” Shelley underscored. “The NSWCCL considers that as part of a healthy democracy, Australia should fiercely defend the principle of free and equal participation in the political process”.

Shelley recalled in her statement last week that “the final report of the 2021 NSW Select Committee on the High Level of First Nations People in Custody and Oversight and Review of Deaths in Custody was tabled in the NSW parliament 30 years after the Royal Commission’s final report was published.”

“Yet, we are no closer to addressing the gross overrepresentation of First Nations people in the criminal justice system,” the lawyer added, as she hit on another key issue underpinning the denial of voting rights, which is it disproportionately affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“The NSWCCL is deeply concerned about the unacceptably high level of First Nations people in custody,” Shelley continued. “Enabling people in prison to vote is a small step forward in addressing the enormous disadvantage that First Nations people face.”

“We should be connecting prisoners to society, giving them a stake in their communities’ future. Allowing prisoners to vote is a form of rehabilitation in itself,” the lawyer said in conclusion.

“Revoking their right to vote is an extra penalty that reinforces feelings of disempowerment, isolation and stigma.”

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