Why would any politician want to deny prisoners the vote? Is it purely because they think it plays well with the less liberal parts of the media (i.e. almost all of it)? Or might there be a better reason? There are all sorts of rationales for the use of prison in the justice system. Are any of them consistent with denying prisoners the franchise as well as their liberty?
1. Public safety. This is the most important one for me. If someone has grievously breached society’s proper moral codes – by which I mean typically premeditated or serious offences against the person – I support using prison to protect society. Why, at the top end of those offences, should the innocent public be exposed to the risk of a repeat offence? I prefer the risk that someone who might actually never offend again still doesn’t get out. You hopefully know the sort of offences I mean here.
So does denying prisoners a vote protect the public? Hardly. What risk is there to the public of further crime from prisoners simply voting? Essentially it’s the same as the threat posed to a mixed-sex married couple by their same-sex neighbours getting married, i.e. none. What’s more, it’s hard to see how they could change anything substantial electorally. There are just over 8,000 prisoners in Scottish jails. A little over 100 per constituency. If they all voted they’d make up 0.4% of the Scottish electorate. A poll I can’t find suggested prisoners would be more likely to vote BNP than the rest of us – and it may not be surprising to turn it on its head and say that BNP voters are more likely to commit crimes – but that’s not a reason to prevent all prisoners voting.
2. Rehabilitation. This is an area where the theory and practice of imprisonment seem miles apart, but can barring prisoners from voting really help them turn their lives around, prepare them for life outside, and reduce reoffending? Actually, the evidence is quite the opposite. It doesn’t seem realistic to say allowing prisoners a vote would have a major impact, but it might have some.
3. Deterrence/retribution. Shall we agree that even the most hardened political hack wouldn’t be put off from committing a crime because of the loss of the franchise? It’s hardly an enormous punishment when you’ve already been deprived of your liberty.
4. Restitution. Nothing here either (cf community services, repayment of stolen money). No victim sees any practical benefit from an offender being denied a ballot.
The best the no-vote side are left with (at Holyrood this means the SNP, Labour and the Tories), as far as I can see, is a reference to some abstract moral principle – that prisoners must forgo any contribution to deciding society’s future, and that when they’ve “paid their debt” they can take part again, irrespective of the absence of any practical benefit to society. It’s precisely the kind of vague and unfalsifiable pseudo-moral hand-waving and hand-wringing certain sections of the media love.
So, conversely, why should we let them vote? First, the minor rehabilitation effects noted above. Many repeat offenders already feel alienated from society, disenfranchised in more ways than one. Do we really want to tell people, especially those who will be released, that society thinks their views are irrelevant? I’d like to believe that allowing prisoners to vote might encourage politicians to consider their views on prison conditions, but the small number of these potential voters (versus the influence of the populist press) makes that unlikely.
Above all, though, we’re meant to be a democracy. If we start going down this road we end up with the approach some American states take, whereby felons are barred from voting forever. We live in a discriminatory society, with a justice system more inclined to prosecute and imprison the poor or protesters than so-called “white collar criminals”, and preventing prisoners from having a say extends this discrimination further for no real benefit. Democracies let their citizens vote, not just the approved subset of the population. It shouldn’t take the European courts to make our governments honour this principle.