Opinion: Prisoner voting rights

Prison fenceThis week, the Supreme Court is considering the legality of the Government’s ban on prisoner voting. A majority of MPs are set against even limited suffrage for prisoners. The idea makes David Cameron “physically sick” and Jack Straw believes “those who break the law cannot make the law.”

Many supporters advance the same perfectly sound arguments, particularly from a human rights perspective. But a strong, pragmatic case for full prison enfranchisement can also be made by assessing this most populist of policies against the aims of sentencing in the criminal justice system that the Government has laid out in law.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 sets out five different rationales for sentencing offenders, the first being punishment that is proportionate to the seriousness of the crime committed. John Hirst, the prisoner who brought the issue to the European Court of Human Rights in 2005, was given a 14 year sentence but was detained longer by the parole board because he was considered a potential danger to the public. By this point, he had served the supposedly punitive part of his sentence, but continued to be punished by not being allowed to vote because he remained in prison. Clearly, Hirst unnecessarily received greater punishment than his trial judge felt was proportionate because of the policy.

The second goal is to reduce crime by deterrence. The UK Government defended their policy before the Strasbourg court by claiming a voting ban deterred individuals from committing crime but there appears to be no evidence to support this. It seems unlikely that losing the right to vote would be in the forefront of most potential offender’s minds as they weigh up whether to go through with their plans.

The third aim is the rehabilitation of offenders but evidence suggests the status quo actually makes prisoners more likely to reoffend. The removal of such a basic civil right is likely to label prisoners as “non-citizens” and alienate them further from the rest of society.

Protection of the public is another aim but it is difficult to see what risk prisoner voting poses, even for those prisoners who have been found guilty of electoral fraud. Whilst it is more likely they might seek to damage the democratic process, this would be practically impossible by the way the voting process would likely be carried out in (postal voting supervised by prison wardens). Finally, the law states that the sentence should make reparation to those affected by the prisoner’s crime, but it is far from clear how a ban achieves this either.

Those who argue that it is morally right to extend suffrage to all prisoners are right, but on a practical level, all those MPs who oppose such a move ought to consider that if it helps to reduce reoffending and ensures just sentences, it serves their constituents better to change their mind then it does to merely talk tough, flying in the face of logic and the law of sentencing.


* Tom Nicholson is a Liberal Democrat member and final year Law student at King's College London

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  • Peter Davies 11th Jun '13 - 9:21am

    Might I hope that some MPs would treat the subject of punishment and rehabilitation more thoughtfully and responsibly if they numbered some prisoners among their constituents.

  • Surely if Jack straw believes “those that break the law shouldn’t make the law” he should have done a bit more about trying to reform the House of Lords in the 13 years he was a high ranking government minister.

  • Voting is a long way from ‘making the law’. Unless prisoners are literally ‘outlaws’ then being able to vote affirms that they are part of the system that has passed judgement upon them, it affirms that those imprisoned are ‘subjects’ under the law.

    OK it is a philosophical point and the reality makes the whole subject rather arcane, it is not the same as allowing criminals to vote in Westminster. The only restriction I would place on prisoners voting rights is that their votes would have to be postal and from wherever previously, they have been entitled to vote.

  • “Those who break the law cannot make the law”? Quite the reverse — those who are imprisoned by a system deserve the right to critique the system that put them there. If one’s political rights can be taken away by a conviction, then presumably a government could intentionally alter the shape of the electorate by mass imprisonments of their political enemies. (This is not a pure hypothetical; it is being done right now in certain “democratic” countries.) People can be and have been imprisoned wrongly, and some people behind bars were never “lawbreakers” to begin with, while others were imprisoned because of unjust laws. Denying them voting rights is a way of saying “Not only do we take away your freedom, we also take away your voice to protest your imprisonment or your say in changing the laws that put you in prison; as for the rest of you, make sure you don’t try to make any real change, or you’ll end up in the same place!”

  • Peter Watson 11th Jun '13 - 1:32pm

    I must admit that I am mystified by the level of heat that this topic raises in the media.
    Set alongside the other freedoms a prisoner loses, being deprived of of the right to vote seems a trivial matter so I do not know why anyone in prison is so vexed about it other than as a way to make mischief.
    Equally, giving a prisoner the right to vote seems a trivial allowance to make if the alternative is expensive and time-consuming legal debate and the risk of withdrawing from the ECHR, and I cannot see why anyone outside prison is so vexed about it other than to exploit an opportunity to froth at the mouth about being soft on crime.
    Yes I think voting is a vital democratic right, and yes I exercise my right to vote at every opportunity (apart from the pointless PCC elections when I exercised my right to not vote). But surely there are more important matters than this in both the penal and electoral systems.

  • I think this column is very eloquently argued. I think the arguments against allowing prisoners the right to vote that were presented to Strasbourg are very spurious.

    The fundamental problems come in terms of the practicalities. Do you permit offenders to visit voting stations (eg what happens if the warden refuses day release)? How can you ensure a secret ballot in a jail? What would the regulations on campaigning while in custody be? Should the vote be where the local candidate is in custody or their previous home address? I think these are problems returning officers need to consider how to overcome but would have been much more salient to present that “if we passed this policy, the right wing papers would give us a serious kicking”

    I think the main way to discredit this is for it to be trailled. Can’t think of a more apt way than in the next european elections 🙂

  • Tom Nicholson 12th Jun '13 - 12:44pm

    Thank you everyone for your comments

    @Martin – yes I think you’re right about prisoners voting in the constituency that they have a historical link with – I think that makes sense, there is no good reason for any one particular MP representing a whole prison-full of extra people

    @David – I agree, it is exactly because the state is depriving them of their liberty that people’s other rights need to be strongly guarded – interesting that you mention about a government tailoring crimes in order to undermine democracy – whilst I do not suggest it is deliberate by the Government, it should be noted that the policy disproportionately removes the right to vote from ethnic minority males – such indirect discrimination, I feel, is completely unjustified

    @sfk – yes, the Government’s arguments made at Strasbourg are effectively without any basis in fact – the only reason the ECtHr conceded to them in any way by not requiring ALL prisoners be given the vote was out of the idea of a margin of appreciation that must be left to individual states on controversial matters like this

    @peter.tyzack – I don’t understand why you feel the need to make a distinction between life prisoners and those guilty of homicide with every other prisoner – I just the Government should not have any right to remove anyone’s right to vote merely because they have been imprisoned

  • The make up of the prison population may not be a reflection of the population outside, BUT many offenders would welcome the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. In my opinion it is a basic right to be able to vote and should be extended to as wide a section of the prison population as possible.

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