Home Law Should Prisoners have the right to vote?

Should Prisoners have the right to vote?

by Barry
The prisoner's dilemma is an example of game t...

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The European Court of Human Rights made a ruling that prisoners should be allowed to vote.  We in the UK, have not complied with that ruling yet, but the Prime Minister has said we can no longer put it off.

On the face of it, I don’t agree with it.  If you are in prison, you are there for not complying with the laws of society to a serious enough degree to have your liberty removed, therefore why should you get the right to vote?

However, as always, I also think its not that simple.  Not all criminals go to jail.  In fact as a Magistrate, I have sent few people to jail and not many at all just for a first offence.  There is in essence a tier system of seriousness, and prison is very much a last resort, either for public safety or all other avenues have been explored.  Also, prisoners only (generally) serve half their sentence in prison, the rest they serve on licence (with electronic tag).

My point in highlighting this is what do we use as the discriminator here, if we do not want criminals to vote, then there is a lot wider remit  of people who are serving sentences such as those under Curfew and/or Supervision order etc, who are not confined in prison but you could argue that they have ticked all the boxes not to vote, but they currently do.

It is on this basis that I think it is right for prisoners to have the vote, not because of their rights per se, but more around the fact that we have not addressed the wider issue of why we are restricting prisoners over any other criminal.

The issue will now be that Cameron has indicated that he does not want the most serious offenders to have the vote.  So how do we work that?  Length of sentence?  As I have already said, if you go to prison in the first place, your generally no Angel, so what number of years is appropriate?  Would that be number of years for a single offence or for the aggregate (there is normally more than one) and would that treat aggregates as consecutive or concurrent.  (Aggregate offences are normally served concurrent).

Some options could be, any Crown Court sentence automatically loses the right to vote (you go to crown for the more serious offences).  Additionally the more serious Either Way offences in the Magistrates court could also apply.

I wonder what will happen next?

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Joe K November 2, 2010 - 9:39 am

As I recall, serving any length of sentence bars a citizen from running for office. Nobody seems to be proposing to change that, although it seems just as much a of a ‘crowd pleaser’. Anyone who can overcome the adverse publicity of having done time and win an election must be doing something right.

We don’t allow people who are judged to be non compos mentis to vote, but who’s to say that a person who has broken the law isn’t as capable of exercising their civic duty as responsibly as anyone else? Is anyone afraid that the time-serving community will vote for a particular party? I take it that candidates would have equal access to these voters during an election campaign (amusing as the idea of canvassing behind bars is).

It’s a brave idea, whether one approves or not. Wish politicians could be a bit braver where drugs laws are concerned…

bazkirby November 2, 2010 - 10:19 am

I think the point is not so much if a criminal is compos mentis to vote, but more around do they deserve the right to vote considering they have broken the laws of society

Having served time at her Majesties pleasure also bars you from becoming a Magistrate. I have had some interesting discussions with fellow JP’s as to the pros and cons of this. In a similar vein to your idea of electing someone, a JP who has served time will have a much better understanding of prison life etc.

Having heard a discussion about the voting preferences of prisoners, there is a line of thought that many prisoners are Conservative supporters. The belief is that in the same way that ex smokers are the harsest critics of smokers, that criminals are the harshest critics of other people going through the system. As for access, that could be an interesting event, a Hustings in HMP Gloucester or HMP Eastwood Park would be memorable. Having been to both prisons, I think the questions would actually be quite challenging and the expectation of a straight answer would be very strong.

How would you like to see the Drug laws changed?

Joe K November 2, 2010 - 10:50 am

‘In a similar vein to your idea of electing someone, a JP who has served time will have a much better understanding of prison life etc.’

That wasn’t quite what I meant. My thought was that with the vicious way many election campaigns are conducted, it would be so unlikely that an ex-con would be selected, let alone win, that the law is tantamount to outlawing holding your breath. However, if such a person did win, it would be an exceptional event. Jonathan Aitken probably couldn’t pull it off, Jeffrey Archer might. Even a murder could, depending on who they killed.

And I’ve have alcohol re-classified as a Class B drug, natch.

Joe K November 2, 2010 - 10:53 am

Funny, I never seem to make the kind of typo my spellchecker will spot…

Eddie November 2, 2010 - 2:24 pm

there is a line of thought that many prisoners are Conservative supporters

Got to love that Barry, it is the funniest thing I’ve heard in years.

bazkirby November 2, 2010 - 5:03 pm


Joe K November 2, 2010 - 8:30 pm

Well, the two ex-cons I’ve mentioned above are both Tories, of course. Anecdotally – and remember, this is just for fun – can anyone name at least two Labour MPs/peers who have done a stretch..? 😉

And no, you can’t have Harriet ‘Handy’ Harman.

Eddie November 3, 2010 - 8:15 am

Why ? Because to suggest that hardly any criminals are labour or liberal is just insane.

bazkirby November 5, 2010 - 1:49 pm

I wasn’t being that digital Eddie. I did not say “hardly any” are labour voters. It could even be equal or not before they go in. The thougth was that Ex Criminals have such thoughts and are more critical of thoer offenders and that chimes greater with Conservative Values than other parties.

Joe K November 6, 2010 - 8:21 am

As it happens, I’ve just heard that Jonathan Aitken is coming on the ‘today’ programme on Radio 4 shortly, to talk about the proposal (oh, he’s actually on now). He just said that his ‘one man straw poll’ indicated that it would be a surge to the right in prisons, but that the BNP and UKIP would benefit more than the main parties.

Which means, point to Barry I suppose, but either way, there’s no call to throw words like ‘insane’ around. We all used to manage to have civil conversations on the forum for years, before people like Reg started to prefer their subjective version of reality, and we can disagree politely here as well, without questioning each others’ sanity (or typos ;)).

Eddie November 6, 2010 - 9:35 am

“The thougth was that Ex Criminals have such thoughts and are more critical of thoer offenders and that chimes greater with Conservative Values than other parties”

So, you are saying that labour and liberal supporters are less critical of crime than conservative. Where did this thought come from Barry?

bazkirby November 6, 2010 - 10:40 am

From a wide range of considered opinion and my own interaction with the Justice system.

Take this opinion from the Guardian which sums up a lot from what I have read:
“Prisoners tend to be socially very conservative – conservative enough, in fact, that they probably couldn’t find a party in the UK that properly represents them. They’re anti-abortion, they’re in favour of very heavy sentences (for other people, mind), there’s plenty of support for the death penalty among them – they’re essentially Melanie Phillips.

And there are good reasons for this: the median age of a prisoner is 23, the peak age of offending is 17. Some 30-40% of any given prison population will have a reading age lower than 10, though this is improving with peer mentoring schemes. It’s basically an immature, semi-literate population, and is commensurately right wing (this doesn’t explain Phillips herself, of course).

It would be disastrous for the left if the prison population were large enough and concentrated enough to make a serious difference with their votes. “

Or this, from some work by the RSA, which supports what I was saying about its not necessarily the point about what they were before they went in, but about there voting intention after they come out:

“only 35 per cent had voted in national elections before their jail sentence. Since the establishment of the User Voice councils, there has been a dramatic change in prisoners’ voting intentions; with 53 per cent of all prisoners and 79 per cent of those involved in a council saying they intended to vote on release. Some of the prisoners involved in the councils had previously voted outside; over 60 per cent of those involved in councils who had not previously voted say they intended to do so in future general elections.”

Eddie November 6, 2010 - 10:58 am

Ah, so conservative with a small c. Nothing to do with the party. I’d go along with that

bazkirby November 6, 2010 - 12:31 pm

Well, I wouldn’t say nothing to do with the party, the conservative party is supposed to be conservative, but as Joe says, there are other parties in this part of the political spectrum.

Eddie November 6, 2010 - 1:23 pm

Lots of conservative labour supporters too Barry.

Joe K November 6, 2010 - 2:26 pm

No question of that. ‘Any Questions?’ has just been on, and Shadow Secretary of State for Defence Jim Murphy said that ‘murderers, rapists and paedophiles’ shouldn’t have the right to vote. He was a minister in Blair’s government, however, so his conservative credentials are impeccable. In practically the same breath, though, by naming Roshanara Choudhry, he extended this to those guilty of attempted murder. What next, people on long-term benefits? It’s not exactly apposite to the present situation, but the principle’s there. No convict has had to throw himself under a horse to get this decision, but it’s a reminder that there was a time when people of influence felt that women could not be trusted with the vote.

On the same programme, the Scottish Environment Minister, Roseanna Cunningham, wasn’t sure if prisoners would vote in the constituency their prison was located. I thought it was very clear that they would vote where they had resided before being locked up, but that begs the question, now, if someone from Bristol gets locked up in Gloucester Prison, will the Bristol candidates go up to Gloucester? Canvassing is annoying to most people (OK, many people, as I don’t want to dishearten Barry), but it’s also our right to be asked our opinion, so can a candidate neglect convicted constituents, any more than he or she could neglect individual houses?

Anyway, I’m guessing convicts would get a postal vote. So, no danger of anyone’s voting intentions being abused there, then.

bazkirby November 6, 2010 - 3:42 pm

Yes I believe it would be by postal vote, which sounds ok, but there is some fundamental flaws in that plan, in that many prisoners do not have a home. Also the speed that prisoners move around prisons is quite astonishing.

Eddie, yes your right, in fact I’m just putting a post together about the political spectrum as i put myself on the Right of the party rather than the left. however you have to say that people with conservative views will more likely vote Conservative, otherwise what is the point?

Eddie November 6, 2010 - 5:33 pm

Barry: My point really is that conservative used in the way the article did simply means tending to maintain existing institutions; opposed to change or innovation.

There is nothing in that meaning that points to any particular party.

bazkirby November 6, 2010 - 6:05 pm

Eddie, I think, being a political piece, it was referring to conservative political opinion, IE the right of the political spectrum.

However, This whole thing is getting sidelined into semantics. The initial point about prisoners voting does seem to be missing the point that not all criminals go to prison. Pretty much all people are in prison as they are a danger to society, not just for not paying TV licence (as the Lib Dem on Question Time seemed to think).

An interesting piece on the radio today made the point that Voting should not be considered a privilage, but a right. And to that end, why would we stop any criminal voting?

Eddie November 8, 2010 - 8:40 am

Rights should be ballanced by responsibilities. I know lots of labour supporters who could be described as to the right Barry.

bazkirby November 8, 2010 - 12:30 pm

This is what I found interesting, as, in theory, A “Right” has no qualifier. Such as the Right to Life (ECHR). the Right to a Fair Trial, (CJA 2003), etc.

If voting is a Right, then there is no need to be responsible. However if Voting in a democracy is a Privilage, then that is when you can balance it against responsibilities.

It is against that, that we need to decide if voting is a Privialge or a Right. And I’m not sure.

My Blog performance – 2010 in review « The murmurings of Barry Kirby January 2, 2011 - 10:26 am

[…] Should Prisoners have the right to vote? November 2010 21 comments 4 […]

Prisoners Votes – The Coalition justifies itself – Sort of « The murmurings of Barry Kirby January 11, 2011 - 10:18 am

[…] I wrote in an earlier Blog piece, I don’t agree that prisoners should have the right to vote, and Mr Harpers tone also conveys […]


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