Thursday 9 April 2009

Should prisoners vote?

The Telegraph reports:

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, is considering allowing anyone sentenced to less than four years the right to cast a ballot. This would result in more than 28,000 prisoners voting. The proposal was put forward as part of a Government consultation on which prisoners could be eligible to vote in the next general election ... The Government is currently consulting on four different options for allowing prisoners to vote. These range from only allowing those sentenced to a year or less to be automatically allowed to vote to allowing those sentenced to up to four years to apply to a judge for the right to cast a ballot.


Michael Wills, a Justice Minister, said that the Government was inclined to only grant less serious offenders a vote.
"The Government has made it clear that it disagreed with the European Court of Human Rights ruling," he said. "However, the result of the ruling is that some degree of voting being extended to some serving prisoners is legally unavoidable.
"We will ensure that whatever the outcome of this consultation, the most serious and dangerous offenders held in custody will not be able to vote."

Or, as The Sun puts it, with less accuracy, Banged up paedos to get a vote.

The BBC website provided a useful briefing on this issue in 2005 at the time of the European Court of Human Rights verdict.

The Prison Reform Trust has campaigned on this issue. It is not one that divides people simply down party lines. The LibDems have had a policy of lifting the right to vote on a "citizens are citizens, full stop" principle. Simon Hughes has been a prominent voice on the issue. The LibDems have come under attack for this position. Labour and the Conservatives have been opposed. Douglas Hurd and Peter Bottomley have been among Conservatives campaigning for the change, which their frontbench has opposed, alongside several Labour peers and backbenchers. The government is now proposing a limited liberalisation - with prisoners serving sentences of less than four years.

On the principle of the issue, I think there are arguments on both sides. Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust has said that "People are sent to prison to lose their liberty not their identity". But the traditional position that voting rights are suspended during a prison sentence, and revert afterwards, seems to me at least arguable. (That seems to me a different argument from the illegitimate practice, common in the United States, of barring ex-offenders, even before one gets into the argument about the deeply flawed application of this process, and allegations of the use of racial profiling with clear partisan consequences. Though it can be noted that the disenfranchisement of paupers - something which the Fabian Society campaigned against following Beatrice Webb's 1909 Minority Report on the Poor Law - was once seem as the norm, albeit when the principle of the universal franchise was not accepted).

In practical terms, I am rather sceptical of the idea - put by Johann Hari in this column from 2005 - that politicians would quickly become very interested in prison conditions. The argument that it voting would be important to rehabiitation also strikes me as perhaps mildly utopian: I imagine turnout would be fairly miserable. Still, it is the principled argument which should dominate.

The best argument for change is that rights matter most when applied to unpopular cases, and that the main barrier is populist opposition. The argument against that would be that the question is legitimately subject to democratic negotiation, and that it is reasonable to collectively decide that the loss of liberties while incarcerated should include voting rights. The moderate reform being proposed seeks to liberalise somewhat, while avoiding a populist backlash against Ian Huntley having the right to vote. Is this a sensible political compromise, or an approach which fails to address the arguments either or reformers or opponents?

I feel I might be persuadable by arguments from those on both sides. What do others think?

As most Fabians will immediately realise, "what has this got to do with Europe" is a red herring. The Daily Express website illustrates its story with an EU flag. That is simply a mistake, whether deliberate or accidental. The European Court of Human Rights is entirely separate from the European Union.

The European Convention on Human Rights was drawn up in 1950 by the Council of Europe. The British were leading champions of this, and Conservative politician David Maxwell Fyfe, one of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials, chaired the process. The British Parliament was among the first to ratify the Treaty in 1951, and it came into force in 1953. The important development in the 1998 Human Rights Act was to allow British citizens to seek redress under its provisions in our own courts, whereas previously it was possible for British citizens to do so only by going to the Court at Strasbourg.


Stuart White said...

Sunder: I'm inclined to think that a prisoner should lose the right to vote only when their crime rises above a certain threshold of seriousness. Restoring the right to those prisoncers with short sentences strikes me as a desirable move that removes a disproportionate penalty from the criminal justice system.

Calix said...

From talking to my wife (a social researcher of offenders) there are some very interesting repercussions.

In fact, unlike Sunder's and my own initial instinct, there might not be low turn-out but quite the reverse. Prison is an institution a bit like a school - everyone goes to lunch in lines or goes out to the yard etc. and just like a school election everyone will be mobilised to vote.

Furthermore, prisoners have time to think, discuss and watch news programmes. If you grant this right to prisoners they will guard it preciously, precisely because they are denied most freedoms. Personal opinions become all the more precious in prison because they are a way of asserting your identity amidst a system which has taken it way. For instance, far more prisonewrs are deeply religious than in the ordinary population. For these reasons there might be very substantial turn-out.

However, in practice the organisation for prisoners to vote would be a nightmare. Which address would they be registered at and in which constituency should their vote be counted for? Many prisoners are homeless and/or not on the electoral register and because of over-crowding they are transfered from prison to prison on a regular basis often far from their the area where their home is.

My own opininon regarding allowing prisoners with sentences of less than four years the right to vote is that it is actually a fudge. I can see the government point of view though (and that of Stuart above) in that it will exclude prisoners with long sentences - the murderers etc. However, democracy should not be about half measures - surely all prisoners should have the vote or the argument can also be made that they have forfeited that human right. I think in a perfect democracy everyone would have the vote, but the practicalities and political sensitivities to be overcome are substantial.

The other issue is who would the prisoners vote for? but that is a subject for another blog.

Robert said...

The way it's going prisoners might be the only one who will want to vote. I sure do not.