10 November 2008

Iain Dale on Votes for Prisoners

Iain Dale recently posted some comments about the possibility of the government being forced to give prisoners the vote.

Iain's comments raise two separate questions here, "who should have the power to decide if prisoners can vote?" and "is denying prisoners the vote the right thing to do?" Iain appears to be of the opinion that prisoners should not be able to vote and that Parliament should have the right to decide who gets to vote in UK elections. I disagree with Iain on both points.

On the first question, I think allowing parliament to make the decision is a very bad idea. Allowing the people whose jobs depend on getting the most votes to make the decision about who gets to vote is asking for corruption. The decision should be made on the the basis of asking "is it right that prisoners should be denied the vote?" but there is a real danger of elected representatives asking themselves "are prisoners more like to vote for me or my opponents?" and choosing the option which gives them most job security.

I'm not sure who should be making the decision. If it depends on applying a set of pre-defined rules, then judges possibly are the right people. If not, it may be that the House of Lords should be given the job, as it is one area where its unelected status would be a major advantage, as it would reduce the conflict of interest. Another option is to give the decision to a large randomly chosen jury, who would arguably be even less personally interested in the voting mechanism. Any of these approaches would be preferable to having the House of Commons involved in the decision making process.

On the second question, the major argument made in favour of denying prisoners the vote is that when somebody is imprisoned they lose their normal rights. Clearly, that shouldn't apply to those on remand, but even for convicted prisoners, they don't lose all their rights, they temporarily lose some of their rights. For example, they lose their freedom of movement, but they don't lose their right to own property, otherwise you'd see people serving short sentences for non-payment of fines leaving prison to find that they no longer owned their house, car, clothes, etc.

From my perspective, prison and the associated loss of freedom are meant to serve four key purposes: rehabilitation, protecting the public from dangerous offenders, providing punishment to create a sense of justice and acting as a deterent. I don't see how taking the ability to vote away from prisoners serves any of those purposes in any meaningful way.

Denying prisoners the right to vote opens up more potential for corruption, as it encourages politicians to introduce tougher sentences for people who are less likely to vote for them and more lenient sentences for those who are more likely to vote for them. That is not in the best interests of justice.

If prisoners genuinely are the most dangerous rogue elements within society, they should be few enough in number that their votes should have very little impact. If, on the other hand, the number of prisoners becomes so large that they are able to wield significant influence, it would tend to be a sign that something has gone wrong in a broader sense, such as people being imprisoned for significant amounts of time for minor offences or the government attempting to skew the democratic process by imprisoning people for political reasons. Ensuring that prisoners continue to be able to vote is an important democratic safeguard.

As soon as voting is done on any basis other than everybody over the age of majority having one vote irrespective of circumstances, you get into a dangerous area, where the normal democratic mechanism of the voters choosing the government is reversed, so that the government can choose the voters.

1 comment:

jailhouselawyer said...

You raise some interesting points.