Reactions to plans to give some prisoners the right to vote

Just before Christmas we covered the government’s plans to give the vote to prisoners serving sentences of less than four years, a delayed response to the adverse court ruling on the current rules from 2005 which the Labour government had not yet properly responded to.

Unsurprisingly, the plans have triggered opposition in some parts of the Conservative Party, including from Paul Goodman over on ConservativeHome: “The essence of the Clegg/Harper case is that the Government has no alternative. However, there at least four”.

Carl Gardner on his Head of Legal blog explains the legal background in more detail:

Obviously this will finally discharge the government’s clear obligation to change the law to comply with the judgment in Hirst v UK, in which the European Court of Human Rights ruled that our current law, which disenfranchises all convicted prisoners, breaches Article 3 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights. That obligation became all the more pressing following the Court’s very recent “pilot judgment” in Greens & MT v UK ordering the UK to bring forward legislation to comply with Hirst within six months. Britain will be out of the dock, and not at risk of the embarassment of being the first state to face new “infraction proceedings” in Strasbourg.

The difficulty the government faced was how far to go. On the one hand, some people urged a “minimalist” approach to implementing Hirst, allowing a small number of less serious offenders to vote so as merely to remove the “blanket” ban on prisoners voting which was the heart of the trouble. On the other hand, the post-Hirst case of Frodl v Austria seemed clearly to threaten that any solution would be unsatisfactory unless it gave the vote to the great majority of prisoners, with only a judge able to take it away in rare individual cases involving, for example, election fraud. That was a judgment I criticised severely in an earlier post.

But the ECtHR seems to have realised it might have gone too far. At least, in Greens (see paras. 112-114) it seemed to step back a bit from Frodl and make clear the government had a range of policy options, while of course pointing out that it’s likely to have to scrutinise whatever is chosen in due course.

Over on the Labour blog Musings of a Radical, Daniel wrote:

The main objection those on the right-wing appear to have, as far as I can tell, is that ‘people in prison are being punished for a crime’ and therefore they forfeit some of their fundamental human rights.

To an extent, I think, we accept that this is true. It would be crazy to ban prisons because they represent a removal of liberty- they are necessary in order to deter criminals, protect society and ultimately to provide a safe space to reform vulnerable people.

However, think seriously about how much of a deterrent losing the vote would be, to anyone that isn’t a seasoned and enthusiastic politico?

Can you really imagine some ruffian not being put off by the prospect of long years kept away in lonely and terrifying confinement, yet quaking in their shoplifted boots at the idea of not being able to cast their vote?

And on Heresy Corner this point was made:

The second measure announced … was that judges will have a discretion to impose a voting ban on any convict serving a sentence of less than four years. Superficially this looks rather clever. It will, though, inevitably lead to further anomalies. What guidance will judges have on the appropriateness of this additional penalty, and what grounds will there be to appeal against it? What is to stop some judges imposing a vote-ban on almost every prisoner who comes before them, and others never imposing it at all?

Unless there are very strict guidelines, under these new rules two prisoners, sentenced to the same jail term for very similar offences, may find themselves on opposite sides of the franchise divide. On the other hand, if the guidelines are restrictive enough to frustrate the exercise of judicial discretion – in other words, if the voting ban comes to be imposed semi-automatically on certain categories of offender – then we are back with the arbitrariness that the ECHR finds so objectionable.

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7 Comments

  • As I understand current legislation, everyone over the age of eighteen years can vote except Lords, lunatics and prisoners. (Please no comments necessary – I believe those are the terms in the legislation). It must be an administrative burden to check, so why not simply remove the specific exclusions. It would probably save money.

    I doubt that many prisoners care whether they vote or not, but I’d like more of them to care. I don’t think it would do any harm if they could vote – and stands a reasonable chance of doing some good. For example, simply by having to consider how to vote and the factors to include may stimulate positive thought processes not previously experienced.

    A further thought: should prisoners vote in the prison’s constituency? I think it might be a good idea if candidates in some constituencies canvassed in prisons – and represented the prison population in their constituency in parliament. MPs visiting prisons from time to time can only be a good thing. Against this idea is the practical problem of prisoner transfers – though on what scale this occurs, I’m not really sure.

  • Simon McGrath 31st Dec '10 - 6:44pm

    Utter madness, just the sort of thing which brings the HRA into disrepute.
    If people don’t want to lose the right to vote while they are in prison they have one very simple way to achieve this – don’t commit the crimes that get them sent there.

  • Patrick Smith 31st Dec '10 - 8:58pm

    The voting rights for prioners serving terms less than 4 years,with conditions set by judges,is a reform that has been forced on the `Coalition Government by dint of the case law in the EHRC.

    I ask that closer attention be made to the fact that UK prisoner numbers has now spiralled into the highest levels of inmates in the EU .

    Further,since the timely prison visits made by Elizabeth Fry, who launched the first recognition landmark for prisoners` human rights in the late 18thC. little has been seen to be done of any sustainable social value,to either individual or community, to reduce re-offending rates.

    There also has been an escalating civil cost caused by the increase in criminal behaviour that is being paid for by law abiding citizens?

    Voting rights for prisoners is cosmetic ,when compared to the real social issue,namely, the 1 in 2 reoffending rates for all prisoners on release post 6 month sentences.

    The overcrowded 80,000 people interrred in Britain`s unreconstructed prisons does not assist in a badly required improvement to the re-education and training programmes to help prisoners.

    Young offenders require greater help to make a fresh crime-free start on re-entry into the local community.

  • Andrew Suffield 31st Dec '10 - 10:08pm

    What is to stop some judges imposing a vote-ban on almost every prisoner who comes before them, and others never imposing it at all?

    That would be the judiciary. There is a very well-established system of jurisprudence, analysis, re-examination, and appeal that has been designed over millenia to solve exactly this problem, and giving the problem to this system was exactly the right thing to do. The problem will now be solved in excruciating detail. (It will take some time and be incredibly boring, but it will be definitively solved)

  • Ok, just think about what the general public would want, not what the political parties think is good and proper, and go from there.

    If that is not enough, think about the worst crime and that perpetrator acclaiming “I voted for” or “I endorse” it is just queasy thinking about that.

    Of course we are all grownups and we know absolutely, that no one will take any notice at all, but think about it, and put the image of a voter filling in their ballot paper and remembering the TV and the guy saying he endorsed…

    Then ask yourself would the media stoop so low, would other politicians stoop so low, if the answer is no to both … you are very trusting

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