Prisoners’ voting rights – the unholy alliance between Jack Straw and David Davis

Convicts, it appears, now have two more names to add to their hit-list. An unholy alliance between Jack Straw and David Davis has emerged with the aim of defeating the UK Government plans to award the vote to prisoners serving four years or less. David Davis argued that, ‘I yield to no-one in my defence of human rights, but giving rapists the vote is not human rights.’ Unfortunately, this is not really an argument. The fact that someone is a rapist does not diminish their claim to human rights any less than if they were an MP.   

In fact, this seems to be endemic in the claims of many opponents of the coalition’s plan to award the vote to those serving custodial sentences of four years or less. To argue that prisoners have forfeited the right to vote, or that they have lost the right for failing their responsibilities because they have broken the law simply begs the question. It amounts to saying nothing more than, ‘prisoners cannot vote because they are prisoners.’ All that is left is a gut-instinct that criminals are the bad guys who should not vote.

Nor is the opposing argument necessarily convincing: disenfranchising prisoners somehow violates their human dignity or renders them sub-human. Again, it smacks of begging the question. Why does it violate human dignity if imprisonment itself, arguably more severe, does not? If taking away someone’s liberty can be justified, surely, in theory, so can taking away their vote.

Ultimately, the most compelling case for allowing prisoners the vote is rooted in the aims of the penal system itself. Firstly, enfranchisement has the potential to facilitate rehabilitation, a key rationale of the penal system. It has been argued that such a move would encourage a measure of civic responsibility and assist in the process of resettlement. 18 European countries seem to think so. Involving prisoners in the democratic process conveys the impression that, as the South African Constitutional Court’s Justice Albie Sachs maintained, ‘everybody counts’. It may even encourage them to take an interest in current affairs.  

Nor would this impinge on the punishment rationale of prison because, the fact is, it does not factor in the sentencing process. In other words, it is never part of the judge’s considerations. Otherwise, two prisoners both facing two years in jail for the same offence, one starting in 2012 and the other in 2014, would not be serving the same sentence given that the latter would be missing the 2015 election. The latter prisoner would, thus, be facing a more severe punishment for no reason. Similarly, awarding prisoners the vote would surely not lead to an increase in prison sentences to compensate for the decrease in punishment.   

Another argument put forward, notably by Nile Gardiner, against giving prisoners’ the vote is that it would not constitute an insult to victims.  As suggested above, disenfranchisement is not about punishment. If giving prisoners the right to vote has even the smallest chance of assisting rehabilitation, it could avoid others having to face the same trauma victims have.  Bringing a sense of justice to victims is a difficult task, but under the current justice system, the punishment for crimes is imprisonment;  every liberty or privilege granted whilst in detention does not diminish that.

As demonstrated by his reluctance to give rapists the vote, David Davis and Jack Straw’s 11th hour challenge, if successful, would continue to portray the legal system and society as vengeful and driven by spite. It is time we moved on.

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