(Note: this article was written and published in 2015. Information and opinions are relevant to the time of publication).
Welcome to my first blog – my name is Nick and I am going to be continuing on from the wonderful Jonny Lindholme in keeping you up to date with topical legal issues, the application process to Oxbridge for law, and anything else which I hope will be of interest.
It is that time again. Election fever has begun to consume the media, work environment and even dinner table discussions. Those of us who are over 18 naturally begin to think:
Nevertheless for some 100,000 individuals in England and Wales the most important question is “Why can’t I vote?”. This blog looks at the controversial issue of prisoners’ voting and outlines some of the arguments for and against. Hopefully after reading this you will be able to form your own opinion as to prisoners’ voting and be able to justify why.
The Yes Camp
Voting is inherently a basic human right. It is one of the cornerstones of a good democracy – every human being has a right to express his or her power to decide who governs the country. Even though individuals have been imprisoned, this does not make them any less human or means that they should have any less of a say in governing the country. What is it about committing a crime which results in a prison sentence that strips you of this basic right?
The sentencing guidelines suggest that one of the factors relating to prison sentences should be the rehabilitation of the offender. If prison is to encourage individuals to invest in society, change their behavior and not break the law again, then surely denying prisoners the vote is counterintuitive. Prisoners will become even more marginalized, less wiling to reintegrate into society upon their release, and thus more likely to commit crime. In recent years, when the Coalition government has placed such an emphasis on protecting the public – encouraging prisoners to desist from reoffending should be a top priority
At the end of the day – what is all the fuss about? The prison population currently totals approximately 100,000. With a UK population of over 64.1 million– will it really make a difference if Prisoners get the vote? Parliament (in the no camp) argues that there is something so morally abhorrent of committing a crime that justifies their ‘civic death’. However, this view is over-simplistic. Every single prisoner is denied the vote. That includes those convicted of small crimes such as theft – and even those individuals awaiting trial in prison who have yet to be convicted of anything. Isn’t the complete ban on prisoner voting quite arbitrary? An individual released after a 15-year sentence on day before the election will be able to vote whilst someone who has yet to be found guilty will be denied the same right.
The No Camp
The common flaw running through the Yes Camp is that they think voting, even though it is a basic right, is an absolute right (such as the ban on torture). This is not the case. In Britain freedom has always come with responsibilities. Upon being convicted of a crime you forfeit certain basic rights such as liberty- and certain civic rights such as voting. The term civic death is an exaggeration as it is merely temporary and can easily be reinstated when prisoners reenter society. Prisoners’ rights are also qualified outside of prison as well – criminal record checks and restrictions apply to certain types of employment.
In addition, the UK is not alone in its complete ban on prisoner voting – plenty of democratic countries retain full bans such as Estonia, Liechtenstein, most states in the United States and Australia, Brazil and Japan. If individuals are so concerned with increasing reintegration of prisoners into society, then surely a more effective means rather than giving Prisoners the vote would be to promote prisoner literacy, drug and alcohol treatment programmes.
This issue also sits as one of great constitutional importance. It should be for the UK parliament to decide whether Prisoners should or should not be able to vote. It is not an issue for the European Court of Human Rights to decide on. In 2011 Parliament voted in favour of retaining the ban by 234 votes to 22. This shows a clear will of the UK, couplde with the principle of national sovereignty (‘Parliament decides’) to prevent Prisoners from voting. Convention rights cannot be stretched to apply here.
Food for thought
The issue of prisoners’ voting is an extremely contentious one and will continue to dominate the political agenda as a mini-battle wages between the UK and the European Court of Human Rights.
To be frank, upon doing research for this blog – I was personally shocked to discover that 234 Members of Parliament had voted in favour of maintaining the ban on prisoners’ voting. What is it about an individual committing crime that provokes such a strong reaction? Why does mentioning prisoners and in particular prisoners’ rights create such a polarised response?
Regardless of political and legal beliefs – the debate is not going away. I am sure that following the election in 2015, the issue of whether prisoners are entitled to the vote, will once more create a situation where ironically, everyone will want their say.