Votes for prisoners

MPs have voted against the motion to extend voting rights to prisoners, defying the edict of the European Court of Human Rights. I was still unsure what I felt about this subject until recently. Just over five years ago I touched upon it on my old blog and had no doubts at all:

But it seems to me that while they are serving their sentence, repaying their debt to society, whatever you want to call it, they should also be excluded from the benefits of being part of that society. Voting is one of those privileges. Why should someone who has committed a crime have a say in how society functions in the meantime? When they’ve been released, yes, absolutely they can have their vote back but while they’re in prison? No. It defies sense. It’s the sort of frilly proposition you’d see raised and carried at a Liberal Democrat convention. “Oh, those poor prisoners, serving their time and they don’t have political representation.” Well, you make your own choices don’t you?

I’m not quite so convinced by this argument now. I still generally feel that if someone is in prison it’s for a legitimate reason; they have been removed and excluded from the niceties of society for a specified period. Losing the right – temporarily – to political representation is one of many rights that can be suspended during this time. That said, however, I’ve been considering some of the other arguments and I think they make a stronger case. The best argument I have read was by David Aaronovitch in The Times (subscription only I’m afraid) who built his case around the common sense question: who gains from denying prisoners the vote? The unavoidable answer, when you really think it through: nobody.

Ultimately, regardless of what someone is in prison for, it’s safe to assume that everyone would prefer they come out a better person than when they went in. That won’t necessarily happen of course, but removing the right to vote certainly isn’t going to help. Maintaining a link to greater society is part of the rehabilitative process along with access to the tools of education. I would not be in favour of removing libraries and access to training from prison so why the right to vote?

So yes, I changed my mind. It happens, occasionally.

Centrist. Atlanticist. Dry liberal. Anti-totalitarian. Post-ideological pragmatist. Child of The Enlightenment. Toucan.

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6 comments on “Votes for prisoners
  1. ph says:

    I think you have moved from right to wrong on this. Practically for the prisoner or the electoral system whether prisoners get the vote makes no difference. However prisoners by committing the crime they did have stuck two fingers up at the society in which they live, and that society responds quite correctly by saying prison with its restrictions is our response to your behaviour. So who are the winners and the losers. Well society is a loser as those who damage that society are made to feel less dissapproved of. The winners of course are the smug liberal left who yet again can keep warm in the glow of their nauseating self-righteousness.However the main issue is the one of democracy. We have a situation whereby parliament and the people of the country do not want prisoners to have the vote, and yet an unelected body of place-men from countries where democracy is very much a fig-leaf can tell us what to do. This is not democracy. At some time in the future the ECHR will really need to make a stand on a serious issue, where a nasty strongman is making the life of his subjects a misery. Unfortunately the EHRC will be ignored as it will be seen a nothing better than some silly institution taken no more seriously than a student union committee

  2. Citizen Sane says:

    Yeah. My first instinct was to think along the same lines and I still very much sympathise with that viewpoint: they have broken the rules of society, they should be denied the privileges of that society. But then, we don't strip them of all rights do we? Certain fundamental rights are (rightly) maintained – after all, we remain a civilised nation. Why should the right to vote be any different? I can't think of any benefit to society by upholding this.As for the ECHR, well. The UK is a signatory to it, indeed was one of its principal architects in the years after WWII. (In fact wasn't its very creation the idea of Winston Churchill?) We can complain about it, but we designed many of the powers it holds. It's not the same as the EU.

  3. ph says:

    The ECHR was founded by us – in an world where millions of the 'weak' had been slaughtered by the 'strong'. Then there was a clear need for the ECHR to exist. However in more equitable times the ECHR should just hold a watching brief – keeping its powder dry. However as with all institutions they self-agrandise, and in this case stripping the peoples of Europe of democratic influence and so should be reformed

  4. Dan Sumners says:

    Removing the right to vote only makes sense as a punishment, so if you want to punish rather than rehabilitate – of which understanding what it means to be a member of society is an important element – then go ahead. But, as has been proved time and again, punishment doesn't work, in no small part due to the fact that it ignores the reasons for people's actions.Also, imagine a situation in which someone breaks a law, such as a curfew or protest ban, because they believe it is an infringement of civil or other rights, ie an abuse of power on the part of the government. They are arrested and sent to prison for their 'crime'. They then have their only other means of opposing the government removed by the government they sought to oppose in the first place. Now, what sort of society does that sound like?Removing the right to vote from prisoners is nothing but retribution, and I don't want to live in a society that believes revenge is a good thing. Disregarding what it does to those on the receiving end of it – and 'criminals' generally come from the most marginalised groups in society, poor and non-white people with little or no education – the allowing of revenge eats away at those who mete it out. A mob always ends up consuming itself.A much larger problem is the amount of white collar crime – fraud, tax evasion, embezzlement etc – that continues to go unprosecuted, let alone punished. Now these are people who truly demonstrate their contempt for society, using it only to line their own pockets. And they and their colleagues have phenomenal access to decision makers.

  5. ph says:

    Does punishment work – not really, does rehabilitation work – not really. So using Dan's argument, society should do nothing to impose its disapproval upon its members. There is a tension between the rights of the individual and those of society and I am more than happy if society curtails the rights of those who make the lives of others a misery. I think we need a stronger and more forceful society which is less afraid of individuals, the state, big business or supra national institutions.

  6. Dan Sumners says:

    Would you care to back up the statement that rehabilitation doesn't work?

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