Tag Archives: America

Prisoners and the Right To Vote in the UK & the USA

4 Nov

“It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison. Frankly, when people commit a crime and go to prison, they should lose their rights, including the right to vote.” 

– David Cameron, during Prime Ministers Question Time, November 3, 2010.

David Cameron’s position on voting rights for prisoners has the merit of consistency. Asked a question in the House of Commons some two years ago about whether the incarceration of convicted prisoners should result in a loss of inmates’ rights, he responded that voting rights for prisoners made him “physically ill”.

Since then, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK must end its ban on votes for prisoners after the government lost its ultimate appeal.

David Cameron has now pledged once again at prime minister’s questions that his coalition government would never give the prisoners the right to vote. While government now has around three weeks to decide its response to the European court ruling, the prime minister’s insistence last month that “No one should be under any doubt – prisoners are not getting the vote under this government” leaves little doubt about the substance of that official reaction.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told the BBC that “It is very clear that most people in the political world in the UK don’t want to give votes to prisoners.”

However, the scale of disenfranchisement in the United States leaves the UK looking positively benevolent. America’s entrenched commitment to mass incarceration and a punitive penal system has long been acknowledged by criminologists. While the nation is home to just 1 in 20 of the world’s population, it imprisons no less than quarter of the whole world’s prison population, with a staggering total of 2.3 million of its citizens behind bars.

One element of American penality will play a key role in the forthcoming presidential election. When voters go the polls this Tuesday, an astonishing total of 5.85 million Americans will be forbidden to exercise the fundamental democratic right to vote. They have been stripped of that right because of what it officially labelled “felon disenfranchisement” – that is, those laws which restricting voting rights for anyone convicted of a criminal offence labelled as a “felony”.

Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? 5.85 million people have no say in the
Presidential Election, due to felony disenfranchisement
(creative commons licence)

A range of state laws bar both felons and in some cases ex-felons from the right to vote. Approximately three quarters of those who are disenfranchised are no longer even behind bars, but are subject to probation supervision or on parole.

Surprisingly for a UK observer, most disenfranchised American citizens are not actually in prison. Almost half of the total number of those barred from voting have already served their full sentence, and are no longer subject to the supervision of the correctional services.

According to the Sentencing Project, ex-offenders in the eleven US states which disenfranchise people after they have served their sentences comprise almost 45 percent of the total of the population denied the right to vote. According to research by the Sentencing Project, an American criminal justice campaigning group which promoting reforms in sentencing policy:

“The number of people disenfranchised due to a felony conviction has escalated dramatically in recent decades as the population under criminal justice supervision has increased. There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, and over 5.85 million in 2010.”

In short, 1 of every 40 adults of the USA’s total population of voting age is denied the right to vote due to a current (or previous) conviction for a felony. By my calculations, if the UK was to disenfranchise offenders at a similar rate, we would deny the right to vote around 1.15 million UK offenders and ex-offenders.

The dynamic of race plays a significant role felony disenfranchisement. The harsh reality that US imprisonment rates are disproportionately higher for African American men may hardly come as a shock, considering that America was embroiled in a civil war over the continuation of  slavery until just two lifetimes ago.

African American males are imprisoned at a rate of six times that of their white counterparts. More than two million black citizens are subject to the control of the correctional system, whether in custody, on probation, or on parole. This systematic network of what has been labelled as “racialized social control” (Alexander 2011:20) also encompasses voting rights.

It is astonishing to learn that now less that 1 in every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised. This is a rate over four times higher than the rate for non-African Americans.

In three states (Florida, Kentucky and Virginia), more than one in five black citizens is denied the right to vote. The disproportionate representation of African Americans within the US penal system means that felony disenfranchisement has a significant impact on the representation of African Americans in the US political system.

There is some evidence that African Americans vote predominantly for Democratic candidates. In a presidential election which promises to be as tightly fought as the current one, African American disenfranchisement may significantly impact the Democratic vote.

Abraham Lincoln’s oft-quoted description of democracy in the United States as embodying “government of the people, by the people, for the people” rings somewhat hollow to almost six million citizens denied the right to vote.

References

ALEXANDER, M. (2011) ‘The New Jim Crow’, The American Prospect, pp. 19-21, Washington: The Justice Policy Institute.

UGGEN, C., SHANNON, S. & MANZA, J. (2012), State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010. Washington DC: The Sentencing Project.

WOOD, E. (2008), Restoring the right to vote. New York: Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Prison And Probation In America

1 Mar

America locks up over two and a quarter million of its citizens – a greater proportion than any other country. What is less well known is that almost five million people are also subject to probation and parole supervision.

America leads the world in imprisonment.  The nation’s 5,000 plus jails and prisons incarcerate over two and a quarter million people. It remains a paradox that the planet’s richest nation, the ‘land of the free’, locks up a quarter of all the prisoners on planet earth. This means that one in every 100 adult American citizens is behind bars.

These statistics, which reflect America’s umbilical attachment to incarceration, are well known to criminologists the world over, yet they still maintain their capacity to shock. The USA’s imprisonment rate is up to 10 times greater than that of most developed, industrialised countries.

Republican and Democratic governments alike have turned to imprisonment as their penal policy of first resort. Key factors that have contributed to imprisonment’s relentless rise include:

  • longer prisons terms as part of the war on drugs;
  • ‘three strikes’ laws, which mean long mandatory prison sentences for those convicted of a felony at least three times;
  • mandatory minimum sentences, which leave no room for judicial discretion in imposing lengthy prison sentences.

At the end of 2010, the prison population very slightly declined (by 0.6 percent). This however, was the first fall in the total population behind bars in nearly four decades, and a decline in prisoners has yet to establish itself. American remains the incarceration nation.

As George W. Bush blithely asserted in his gubernatorial campaign in Texas prior to his presidency, ‘Incarceration is rehabilitation’. The Orwellian clarity of this statement neatly summarises the entrenched perspective on penal policy within the Republican party. (If Texas was an independent country, it would boast the world’s highest imprisonment rate – not to mention the most frequent use of the death penalty in any US state.)

While academic attention has long focused upon America as the global leader for incarceration, less criminological notice has been taken of the widespread use of probation intervention.

Almost 4.9 million people were supervised in the community on probation or parole at the end of 2010. This staggeringly high figure is is the equivalent of probation supervision for 1 in every 48 US adult citizens. It also helps explain why America employs  over 93,000 probation officers and correctional treatment specialists.

Though probation was traditionally regarded as most appropriate for low-risk offenders in the USA, probation staff have begin to supervise offenders who pose a higher risk, both of reoffending and to public protection.

The maximum duration of a period of probation supervision is five years. Officers with caseloads of 200-300 clients are no longer unusual, which clearly limits the work that may be done to address the mix of complex issues which many contribute to reoffending. The average person on probation may have no more that 15 minutes contact time with their supervisor.

This reflects penal priorities  in the USA; over nine tenths of the correctional budget is spent on imprisonment, despite the fact about around 7 in every 10 offenders are in the community. People on probation (4,055,514 in total) account for the majority (83%) of all of those subject to community supervision. Parolees (840,676 in total) accounted for a smaller share (17%) of those on supervision.

As with the prison population, the number of people on community supervision population is now beginning to very slightly decrease. The number of people on probation fell slightly, though the number of parolees increased. People who breached the conditions of their probation during 2010 were incarcerated at rate of 5.7%.

About threequarters of people on probation were male, and a quarter were female. Over half of the probation population was white, while 30% was black and 13% was Hispanic. Both black people and Hispanic people are disproportionately represented in the probation population (just as they are in the prison system).

Around three quarters of people on probation and four fifths of parolees are on ‘active probation’. The means that they must report in person on a regular basis to a probation or parole authority in person (or sometimes by telephone or email).  Property offenders make up 28% of those on probation, while drug offenders comprise over a quarter of probationers. Just under a fifth of people on probation are supervised for a violent offence.

One area in US probation would be unrecognisable to UK probation practitioners: the collection of ‘user fees’. Charging the user for the privilege of being supervised is growing in popularity in America. Some American probation services users have to pay a supervision fee of up to $100 per month.

This is not new; Michigan was charging fees to users as early as 1929, and more than half of all US states were collecting fees by 1990. In the state of Texas in 1990, probation supervision fees charged to probation service users raised a total of $57 million, which was more than half of the entire supervision budget.

Probation service users who are already coping with a range of problematic social issues in their lives, finding $100 to pay for their next probation appointment is often not prioritised. Failure to pay can mean a return to court, and then incarceration. The imperative to collect fees may also impact on probation staff’s capacity to support rehabilitation.

Many American probation officers now carry guns. While firearms are not universally used, most US states have provision for armed officers. Within the federal justice system, too, most districts allow federal probation officers to carry guns.

The harsh economic climate has hit US probation hard. Some 31 states made cut their corrections budgets in 2010. This has hit programmes geared at changing offenders’ behaviour hard.

Nevertheless, probation still enjoys substantial political and popular support. It remains the preferred sentencing option in the US criminal justice system.

Further reading:

Teague, M. 2011. Probation in America: Armed, private and unaffordable? Probation Journal, 58. pp.317-332

Curated web resource on US prisons