The dilemma regarding the enfranchisement of prisoners is becoming a constitutional issue. There are two opposing moral positions. David Cameron has said “It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison.” But the rule of law is about more than gut instincts. The UK government has an unequivocal responsibility to implement judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. If it refuses to bring forward plans to provide votes for at least some prisoners by Thursday of this week it will be in breach of its obligations.
In 2005 the European Court of Human Rights held that Britain’s “general and automatic disenfranchisement of all serving prisoners” was incompatible with Protocol 1 of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees that states will “hold free elections”, although does not explicitly guarantee the right to vote. It was decided that the ban was “a blunt instrument [which stripped] of their Convention right to vote a significant category of persons and [did] it in a way that [was] indiscriminate.” Following an Italian case on 22nd May (Scoppola v Italy), which held an “automatic disenfranchisement of all serving prisoners was incompatible with Article 3 of Protocol 1”, the UK government was given six months to bring forward proposals to end the blanket ban in this country. Yet the British Prime Minister, despite the advice of his Attorney General, has clarified that he has no intention of conceding the right to vote.
Denying the vote to prisoners appeals to a motley group of those who would like a harsher criminal justice system and Conservative MPs who see judgments of the European Court of Human Rights as ‘filthy foreign rubbish.’ (is this a quote? If so from what source?) But the arguments don’t stack up. To say those “who break the rules shouldn’t make the rules” is rather glib. The right to vote is the right to have one’s opinion weighed together with others. It is not directly about legislation. Nor does the judgment say that all prisoners should be given the vote. Prisoners are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The overriding punitive element of prison is deprivation of liberty. It is not ‘civic death.’
Giving prisoners a stake in society encourages them to take responsibility. Voting is an intrinsic aspect of citizenship and can become part of the process of rehabilitation. Voting is both a human and constitutional right. It cannot be interfered with except for a legitimate end. If it is to be part of the sentence then it is properly up to a judge to take it away and to make clear its connection with the offence. Voting has never been dependent on virtue.
Full Article: Votes for British prisoners: now is the time | openDemocracy.