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Monday, October 17, 2011

Giving prisoners the vote is a small step on the road to true democracy

Giving prisoners the vote is a small step on the road to true democracy

Monday, 17 October 2011 2:12 PM

Granting voting rights to prisoners will help offenders engage in society on their release.

By Ursula Smartt

After his legal victory on prisoners' voting rights, John Hirst posted a blatantly rude video message on YouTube, celebrating with a bottle of champagne and lighting a large joint.

Millions of viewers heard Hirst shouting to camera: "I'm celebrating for the 75,000 prisoners who will be getting the vote; and that includes murderers, rapists and paedophiles." Prime minister David Cameron professed in November 2010 that he was "angry and exasperated" with the Strasbourg ruling on prisoner voting, worried about the deadline set by the human rights court that the UK had been asked to implement legislation by August 2011.

John Hirst had been sentenced to life imprisonment in June 1979 for hacking his landlady, Bronia Burton, to death by hitting her seven times with an axe. At his trial Hirst had pleaded guilty to manslaughter by diminished responsibility. Whilst in prison, Hirst had furthered his education, including the study of law. He had become one of the most litigious prisoners in the prison system. In a second action before the human rights court, Hirst won his case in 2005, claiming that the UK had contravened the European Convention on Human Rights by not allowing its prisoners to vote.

Whilst the Strasbourg court ruling did not state that all prisoners should be given voting rights, it sent a stern message to the UK parliament that measures were needed to establish compatibility with the Convention. There are presently 18 (out of 47) member states of the Council of Europe that allow their prisoners the right to vote, including Spain, Sweden, Portugal, France, Germany and Greece.

During the last general election in May 2010, about 73,000 prisoners were denied the right to vote. Since then the coalition government has attempted to find a solution to the Hirst ruling. In January 2011, political adversaries Jack Straw and David Davis unusually joined forces by leading a parliamentary debate in which they tried to persuade the new Commons backbench business committee to resist political and constitutional reform in respect of prisoners' rights to vote. Straw and Davis argued that the Commons should be given the chance to stand up to the human rights court and defy an illegitimate challenge to a democratically elected parliament. Both claimed that voting rights for prisoners should be determined by parliament and not by the courts. The fact remains that a succession of governments have delayed passing legislation in this respect. The Straw-Davis motion called for the retention of the status quo in which all prisoners (except those on remand, imprisoned for contempt, or fine default) would be barred from voting.

The debate resulted in the motion supporting the continuation of the current prisoner voting ban at 234 votes to 22 - and now the government is facing a potential £160 million in fines if the Hirst judgement continues to be ignored.

The prisoner voting debate raises the age-old question: 'What is prison for'? Over 20 years of prison research has taught me that voting is not top of a prisoner's wish list. It could however be argued that the Hirst challenge has highlighted that voting is an important civic duty and should be a fundamental educational tool, particularly in prison, in order to encourage responsible citizenship. The voting issue could form a meaningful part of the prison education syllabus to include citizenship training which, in turn, would assist the resettlement and re-integration of prisoners into society. Giving prisoners the vote might even improve victim awareness and empathy. When visiting High Down Prison (Sutton, Surrey) in May 2011, I noted that there could be potentially 1,400 prisoner votes at the next general election. Even if only a third decided to vote that could swing it on issues such as 'law and order'.

The current proposed legislation involves giving the vote to convicted prisoners with a sentence for less than four years; though judges can retain the discretion to remove this right as they pass sentence.

However if only short-term prisoners are given the vote what about long-term prisoners? By giving all prisoners the vote it could encourage better inmate-staff relationships and could potentially improve responsible prison governance, particularly in some violent prisons.

The precise number of prisoners eligible to vote may actually be lower than expected since a small number of those serving four-year sentences may be concurrently in prison for longer terms and will therefore still be barred from voting. In April 2011, more than 28,000 prisoners were sentenced to less than four years including almost 6,000 imprisoned for violent crime, over 1,700 sex offenders, more than 4,000 burglars and 4,300 imprisoned for drug offences.

Arguably, there are a number of advantages to this law reform. Firstly, the UK will have complied with the European Convention, which means that Britain can teach its criminals to obey the law by complying with international law itself. Another advantage is offender rehabilitation: denying the right to vote leaves prisoners isolated from society. Voting could become part of prisoner rehabilitation by way of an incentive and by actively and responsibly taking part in society after release, rather than existing on its fringe.

By being given the vote, prisoners can actively engage in citizenship training and engage with the society. Voting means being part of the decision-making process and being a responsible citizen. Giving prisoners the vote is one small step towards an engagement with civic power and the respect for the rule of law which are the crucial foundations of a meaningful democracy.

Ursula Smartt is an associate lecturer in media law at the University of Surrey and a magistrate on the Surrey Bench at Guildford.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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