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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Open societies need not let prisoners vote

Open societies need not let prisoners vote

We all have an interest in making the route back to the straight and narrow as broad and attractive as possible

By Tom Sutcliffe

OK. Everyone back to their starting positions. It seems that the election was illegal and we'll have to run the whole damn thing again. Well, possibly. My grasp of the niceties of international and electoral law is fuzzy, to say the least, but given that the last election was conducted in a way that was in knowing violation of the European Convention on Human Rights one assumes a case could be made that the results are invalid.

The breach, incidentally, comes about because prisoners still aren't allowed to vote, six years on from a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling that the UK's blanket disenfranchisement is unlawful. In the interim, the government has been "consulting" on how to comply – a process which appears to consist of putting the matter on a very high shelf and then conveniently losing the step ladder. And it's not hard to see why the last government (or this one) wouldn't be in a hurry to resolve this matter. The people who stand to gain from a change don't, by definition, have a vote to win. And every party – barring the Lib Dems – fears there are a lot of votes to be lost in bowing to such a directive. This week, though, the body that monitors member states' compliance with ECHR rulings is likely to put further pressure on Britain to actually do something – rather than just pretend to think about it.

There are good arguments for letting prisoners vote. To disenfranchise them, campaigners suggest, may simply aggravate the very alienation that put them in prison in the first place. How can we expect increased civic responsibility from inmates, they say, when we're effectively telling them that they aren't part of civic society at all? Others, such as Lord Hurd, advance a more practical rationale: if prisoners could vote, he once pointed out, politicians might have more of an incentive to take prison reform seriously. Still others insist that this is one of those entitlements – like the right not to be tortured or imprisoned without trial – that marks out civilised countries from uncivilised ones. We are out of step with most European countries in this regard, they point out, and in step with Bulgaria, Armenia and Romania. And yet there are also some very potent emotional arguments against – which tabloid headline writers understand only too well. You can easily write your own: "Give Monster Huntley the Vote Demands Brussels".

Even those who argue in favour of prisoner voting rights concede that the most notorious cases present a difficulty. Erwin James, a former prisoner himself and a thoughtful writer on prison reform, conceded as much when he wrote about this subject last year. "Arguably it would be pointless to allow such prisoners the franchise," he wrote. Which raised a question. Was this merely a tactical concession ("If we insist we'll never win the wider argument"), or was it a genuine acknowledgement that some crimes might deserve the loss of citizenship as well as liberty?

If it's the former then it hardly seems unreasonable for opponents to raise the matter (an argument on principle should work with its most difficult instances, not only its easiest ones). If it's the latter then all we're arguing about is where exactly the line should be drawn. The European Court, after all, doesn't say that all prisoners must be given the vote – only that a blanket disenfranchisement is unacceptable.

The Prison Reform Trust has pressed for the exclusions to be as limited as possible. It's director, Juliet Lyon, recently argued that a 2005 case, Frodl v Austria, sets a precedent requiring "a link between the offence committed and issues relating to elections and democratic institutions". In other words you should only lose your vote if you've been convicted of electoral fraud or something similar. But this takes a ludicrously narrow and technical view of the way crime damages democratic society.

There's always a link. If someone successfully detonates a bomb on a rush-hour train, killing scores of people, it's surely arguable that this is an offence against civil society which might disqualify you, for a time at least, from full participation in it. The government would be foolish (and wrong) to extend its stonewalling on this matter much further. We all have an interest in making the route back to the straight and narrow as broad and attractive as possible – and voting rights might play a part in that. It would be right, though, to insist that the right to vote is not inalienable. You can forfeit it, and once you have, you should have to earn it back.

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