Should those who are convicted of crimes so serious that they receive a custodial sentence be able to vote?
Should prisoners have the benefit of influencing the making and reform of laws that they have either admitted to breaking or been shown beyond reasonable doubt to have broken?
According to newspaper reports today, the blanket ban on prisoners being able to vote is at last to be lifted. The spin is that this is because it is too expensive for the government to remain in breach of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The European Court of Human Rights ruled back in 2005 that such a blanket ban was not acceptable under the ECHR. (The 2005 case was brought by the indefatigable John Hirst, who can take the most credit for keeping the issue of prisoners’ votes alive.)
However, one should not take the government’s protestations about financial costs at face value. Blaming the pesky expense of undeserving legal cases is a time-honoured excuse for anyone retreating from an otherwise unsustainable position.
David Cameron is said to be “exasperated and furious” at having to lift the ban. It appears that it was looked at “from every legal angle”, but apparently there was no alternative.
Hogwash. That is simply not the legal situation. It is perfectly possible for the UK legislature to derogate from the ECHR, should it really want to. Indeed, the UK has done so before in respect of anti-terrorism measures. Of course, such a move would be extraordinarily illiberal. But it would not be impossible if the Prime Minister actually was “exasperated and furious”.
Instead, the better explanation is that this is a liberal measure being implemented under the cover of illiberal noises. This is a far preferable approach to policymaking to that of the Labour Party from 2001 to 2010, which often did just the opposite.
And it is indeed a liberal measure. There is no sensible or normative basis for the casual and routine desocialisation (and sometimes dehumanisation) that constitutes our current criminal sentencing and penal regime. Future generations will be aghast that we somehow think the best response to antisocial activity is to make it structurally more difficult for people ever to socialise properly again. Deprivation of liberty should not mean deprivation of other rights.
(In saying this, I am not being sentimental about criminals. I have no qualms about someone being incarcerated – even indefinitely – if that can be shown to be for the safety of the public.)
There will now be questions about how lifting the ban would work in practice. Would the votes go to the prisoners’ home constituencies, or will there be (literally) voting blocks in the constituency where the prison is located? (On Twitter, @PeatWorrier said that his personal preference, for maximum interest, would be for prisoner seats, along the lines of the old university constituencies.)
Can certain, highly serious crimes be omitted? Can electoral offences be omitted? And so on.
A great deal of detail needs to be worked out now that the blanket ban will be removed.
But the coalition government is to be congratulated for this liberal measure, regardless of its supposed “outrage”. It is the right thing to do. And it is a pity that the deeply illiberal Labour government from 2005 to 2010 was simply not willing to do it.
In principle, those convicted of a crime so serious that they receive a custodial sentence should not be rendered outlaws or excluded from society.
Prisoners should generally have the benefit of influencing the making and reform of laws. After all, they also have an informed view on how laws affect people’s lives, and – in any case – they are citizens, too.
David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He was a government lawyer at the Treasury Solicitor from 2003 to 2005. He blogs on legal and policy matters for the New Statesman.