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Prisoners Should Be Allowed To Vote

This is a guest post by Thursday Next

Five years ago, deciding a case brought by John Hirst, the European Court of Human Rights decided that the UK’s blanket ban on prisoners voting was unlawful.

Since then, the government has hemmed, and hawed, and dragged its feet, but has implemented no change – even as the rest of the world moves forward.

“The UK seems to have lost its way when it comes to the rights and responsibilities of its citizens in prison. As we stall, the government in Hong Kong has just concluded a sensible public consultation exercise prior to enfranchising all, or most, of its prisoners.

Handing down a landmark ruling that all prisoners should have the right to vote in April 1999, the constitutional court of South Africa declared that: “The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood. Quite literally it says that everybody counts.”

According to the joint committee on human rights, the UK is now also out of step with most European countries. Prisoners may vote without restriction in 17 countries and may frequently or sometimes vote in a further 13. The UK is one of only 12 countries where people in prison are still stripped of their voting rights.”

Having broken laws, offenders should be punished. But should that punishment extend to the removal of voting rights – and if so, in which cases? Any breach of the law whatsoever? Does this include parking offences? Smoking pot? Disturbing a pack of eggs?

Can the fact of imprisonment be the basis for drawing the line? There is a persistent myth that only those who commit serious offences go to prison. In reality, the basis for using custody is variable across postcodes, murky and ever-shifting. There has been an increasing tendency for sentencers to use imprisonment in situations that ten years before would have resulted in community sentences or a fine. With the government’s enthusiasm for creating ever more criminal offences, the use of custody as a means of social control has expanded into circumstances where it is deeply inappropriate – for instance, every fortnight a parent is jailed for their child’s truancy. Moreover, many are imprisoned for technical breaches of court orders – failing to meet a probation officer as scheduled, say, which is easy enough for someone disorganised to do, but hardly serious enough to warrant disenfranchisement.

The right to vote is a fundamental symbol of having a stake, and a say, in society. Prisoners are not un-persons. Offenders should be punished, but their right to be heard should not vanish. The routine disenfranchisement of a huge number of people, in direct contravention of the government’s human rights obligations, has to end.