Britain’s ability to act as an example of democracy worldwide is startling. Indeed, we even let those charged with serious crimes vote whilst waiting for their sentence. Yet the second that a sentence is passed, even if it’s a matter of weeks, all voting rights are suspended. Those who are imprisoned under any charge and for any sentence length are refused the right to take part in Britain’s democratic system. Prisoners are separated fully from society.
In 2004 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Britain’s blanket ban on prisoners’ voting rights was illegal. Britain’s government is currently drafting legislation to allow all those serving less than a four year sentence their voting rights whilst in jail. The system will allow eligible prisoners to vote by proxy or by postal vote in their own constituencies, extending current voting rights for inmates who are on remand or not yet sentenced. The government includes proponents of the reforms, such as Ken Clarke, current Secretary of State for Justice, who will include the reforms in a range of measures referred to as the “rehabilitation revolution”.
Even for those who don’t endorse the reforms, such as David Cameron who claimed that the idea of giving prisoners voting rights made him feel “physically ill”, the Court ruling means that there is a legal obligation to reform the system. If the government fails to reach the deadline for such reforms to be passed it in 2011 could incur a fine of £16 million.
However, former Home Secretary Jack Straw and former shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, have launched a campaign against the bill. On Wednesday 19th January, in Prime Minister’s Questions, Jack Straw referred to the extension of suffrage as “an offense to the public” whilst David Davis considered the measures to be the “wrong” thing to do. The pair has appealed to the Commons Backbench Business Committee to schedule debate on the measures sooner rather than later, hoping to enable a full debate before the legal obligation of the European Court’s decision forces through proposals.
In Britain the use of short sentences for less serious crimes shows a philosophy of retribution and deterrence, but most importantly reform. By taking away the freedoms of a prisoner, the justice system forces criminals to give back what they owe to society and attempts to warn potential criminals off committing crimes. However, it is only by education and the changing of attitudes that the prison system is able to reform criminals, whether they have short or long sentences, to become functioning members of society once released.
Voting rights for prisoners in their proposed form will give the vote to 28,000 prisoners, 6,000 of whom have been imprisoned for violent crime and around 1,700 of whom have committed sex offences. These figures have caused outcry against the measures. The internet is littered with comment screaming against the injustice of criminal suffrage; but the cost of crimes which bear sentences of four years or less is not intended to be permanent or complete removal from society, the likes of which has been the advice of arguments against the measures.
Even more intelligible opponents, who worry about the offense caused to the victims of crime, the full and fair the removal of rights through imprisonment and the importance of retribution, seem to scan over one important detail of short terms. In less than four years this person will be released into society and, although their employment possibilities and other ratings will be harmed, they will be a fully functioning member of the community. They will be able to enrol in colleges, forced to pay taxes and able to enjoy the freedoms that benefit all members of society. To reject criminals from political discussions is to reject them from the world which they are expected to join.
Granting prisoners voting rights would allow for them to become engaged in discussions about the state and citizenship. The ability for prisoners to then be able to cast their vote, and have their say in the government, will give them a stake in society once released. It’s fair to assume that if an individual had education in citizenship and the ability to vote for their government, alongside an education about the issues at stake, they would feel a greater sense of responsibility in abiding by their government’s rules rather than reoffending.
Prisoners ought to be granted suffrage. Not only is there a legal obligation to ensure that the measures are passed this year, but reform could improve society. The current system, whereby prisoners’ rights to citizenship are removed alongside their freedom on incarceration only works to marginalise prisoners once released. The view that prisoners create a subclass of people, not rational or privileged enough to have the vote only works to increase reoffending rates. By granting prisoners the vote, Britain will send out a clear message, that once a crime has been committed the perpetrator will be punished but will remain a member of the community, with a right to influence society through the practise of democracy. Suffrage for prisoners is, therefore, a route to a fairer, more democratic and more inclusive society.