Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Why some prisoners should have the right to vote

There is some confusion about exactly what the government's draft bill on prisoner voting will contain on Thursday. What there is no confusion about, however, is that our MPs are strongly opposed to any move to extend the franchise to inmates. In February last year, they voted by a majority of 212 (with only 22 against) to retain the current ban.

There are some who say it is foolish for our politicians to behave in this way as it will result in a confrontation with the European Court of Human Rights. That argument does not cut much ice with me. I don't think we should legislate on this because Europe is telling us to. We should legislate on it because we are a liberal democracy.

When people are locked up for crimes in this country they already have lots of things taken away from them. Their liberty. Their right to see their family and friends whenever they please. Usually their job and their home. Their basic choices about what to eat, when to eat, where to eat and so on. It is right to deprive those who have committed crimes serious enough to warrant a jail sentence of these things. But why should they should automatically have their right to vote removed too?

I can see the argument for not allowing long-term prisoners and those with life sentences the vote. But the majority of prisoners are serving short sentences and, at the time of any general election, most of them will be released before any subsequent election and hence will be affected as a free citizen by the government elected. In the case of referenda, which tend to come around very infrequently, those results could affect the prisoner for the rest of their life. Someone only a few months away from release in May 2011 will be now out and yet may never get the chance to vote on the electoral system used for the House of Commons.

Perhaps even more importantly, one thing that almost everyone across the political spectrum agrees on is that we need to reduce reoffending rates, which in 2011 were running at an astonishing 90 per cent for serious crime.

Giving prisoners the vote will not change this overnight. But treating them with a little bit more respect and giving them a stake in how their society is governed is likely to be one of the things that helps. If we want to reduce recidivism, we need to be willing to think outside the constricted box our politicians have placed themselves in on this issue. A good start would be for the government to acknowledge on Thursday that there is a strong, principled case for some prisoners to have their democratic rights restored.

Not because Europe has told us to, but because it is right.

This post was originally published last week on The New Statesman online.


Anonymous said...

"I can see the argument for not allowing long-term prisoners and those with life sentences the vote."


The governments policies will still affect them to some degree, so I see no reason to deny them the vote other than to remove them of some of their rights as punishment.

So once you accept that precedent, why start diluting it or making half measures, you either agree with that freedom being removed or not.

Then of course we have the poisonous "tribal" voting culture still at large in parts of the population, do we really need anything more to encourage that.

Those serving time now, but due for release soon, may not be up to speed on current events, who's who, who's doing/done what, the general news and events those outside are aware of.

How are they fit to vote, might as well let them vote by blindfold and dartboard, or just ask them which party they always vote upon incarceration.

Mark Thompson said...


2 reasons.

1) I actually do think there is an argument for saying that some crimes are so bad (e.g. murder, sex crimes) that part of the punishment should be to have the right to vote taken away. I'm open to discussion as to exactly where to draw this line but I am OK for there to be a line. The problem at the moment is that this debate is not heard as there is a knee-jerk idea that anyone in prison should not be allowed and hence the line is drawn at the entrance to every prison regardless.

2) We live in a country where last year 90% of MPs who voted on this issue voted for a blanket ban. On purely pragmatic grounds we are never going to shift this debate if those of us who want reform adopt an equally entrenched and absolutist position. I suspect some who voted for a ban would be amenable to the idea that some people who have committed minor crimes could have their democratic rights restored. As soon as you open the door for notorious murderers and rapists to have the vote you've lost the political argument before you've even started. I don't like that the rules of the game are stacked like this but they undoubtedly are.

Anonymous said...

But who ends up in jail for minor offences these days, unless it's repeated offences.

Going to jail often means committing one serious crime or a string of crimes, shoplifting shouldn't stop you from voting you might argue, but who's goes to jail for shoplifting just the once. People who have committed a string of offences should be treated as serious criminals.

And then there is the real petty stuff, people sent to jail for not paying court fines, I would argue they shouldn't be sent to jail (again unless repeated offenders), making it another debate entirely.

I'm not convinced that a blanket ban is the wrong solution, you would end up drawing a line that would leave such a small proportion left who are eligible, that it would be a waste of resources to manage it.