Giving Prisoners The Right To Vote

Larry Price
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Wednesday - March 04, 2009
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There is a lot of excitement in the Legislature over the same-sex marriage and civil unions dispute as well as the raging debate over the ceded lands controversy here at home and in the U.S. Supreme Court, among other issues.

The underlying motive in these controversial bills has to do with human rights - usually the equality, access, recognition or preservation of people’s rights.

Hawaii has always championed human rights, especially for the underprivileged. Hawaii’s lawmakers go the extra mile when it comes to the disenfranchised, a term legislators like to use when introducing human rights proposals.


One of the most expensive propositions in Hawaii is taking care of residents who are stashed away in prisons, either here or on the Mainland. They’re incarcerated, but not forgotten. Senate Bill 619 has found that the disenfranchisement of persons following criminal convictions undermines democratic ideas by depriving otherwise qualified citizens of their right to vote. This is said to impede the offenders’ successful re-entry into the community as responsible, productive citizens.

This bill would change that by allowing prisoners to vote by absentee ballot, which would help inmates remain aware of the issues that are important to society so that they may participate more fully in their communities upon release.

Be advised that the state is responsible for the care and custody of approximately 3,350 inmates housed here and another 2,100 housed under contract in Mainland facilities.

There is no question that taking care of all those inmates is expensive and gets more so every year, for a variety of reasons. It should be noted that, according to the law, even the most chronic or hardened inmates have basic rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. From the moment suspects are arrested they have certain guarantees - at least 14 of them - beginning with, under the Eighth Amendment, to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment.” Forget about the victim’s rights for a moment, because any punishment that can be considered in violation of the basic concept of a person’s dignity may be found to be cruel and unusual.

Inmates have the right to complain about prison conditions and to be free from sexual crimes. Disabled prisoners are entitled to assert their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure they are allowed access to prison programs or facilities for which they are qualified. They are entitled to mental and other medical care as needed to treat both short-term conditions and long-term illnesses. The medical care provided must be “adequate.”

The list outlining the rights of inmates is impressive; even more impressive is a section of the law that mandates that inmates’ constitutional rights are violated when they are held in a rundown, overcrowded facility. They even have certain First Amendment rights, such as freedom of speech, and once this bill is passed and gets by the governor’s scrutiny, they will have the right to vote.

There is hope that disenfranchised inmates will seize the opportunity and have a 100-percent turnout. This would prove that the intent of the bill was taken seriously.

And 5,000 votes one way or another can sway an important election.

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