Votes for prisoners; it’s about justice…..
I have little doubt that David Cameron is immensely grateful to the European Court of Human Rights for their ruling that prisoners should be given the vote. It gives him the chance to go to war with Europe, flying the flag of ‘national sovereignty’, and look tough on crime all at the same time. If he was praying for divine intervention from the great gods in the political sky he could scarcely have wished for a better delivery service. I doubt it will be enough to save his ailing Premiership but he, like the rest of us, has the chance for a rare snatched moment in the sun.
Giving prisoners voting rights is certainly an emotive issue and it is also a complicated one. On the one hand there is the legal debate over whether the ECHR has operated within its boundaries and on the other there is the debate about pretty much whether prisoners have any human rights at all. The answer to this should be an obvious yes but even this debate misses the central question and that is how we view justice. People who answer ‘no’ to the previous question would naturally tend to say determining who the guilty are and punishing them appropriately. However, people who answer ‘yes’, as I would, would point to the need for offenders to be rehabilitated.
Yesterday, I took part in an interesting group exercise – the different groups were given a scenario and asked to decide upon an appropriate punishment for a drink driver. The fictional man in question was 74, had an alcohol problem and known depression, he had hit somebody and broken their legs. We were not told whether the offender had ‘hit and run’ or any other further details. Some decided on a lengthy custodial sentence, while others, myself included opted for a suspended sentence, with the condition of its suspension being counselling, and attendance at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
It was a common factor that those who opted for the former approach focused solely on the damage done to the victim, while those who took the latter approach tended to focus on the obviously bad situation of the defendant and his prospects for a post-punishment life. I would say the room split 50-50 which surprised me as I expected more to take the former view.
In truth, the question is striking a balance. No rounded concept of justice, for me, focuses solely on punishing the guilty. Indeed, this approach is impractical, purely ‘restorative justice’ is only practicable in the case of certain crimes (how do people propose, for example, to ‘un-murder’ somebody?). We also have a prison system that is well-known to be at breaking point. However, no rehabilitation would be successful without a punitive aspect. So, where does that leave us with this issue?
Voting is a part of playing an active part in society (though many of those nominally ‘free’ to do so actually don’t) and it is a way of forcing representatives to actually seek to represent people. Prisoners, like it or not, are as entitled to representation just like the rest of us; therefore they should have the vote, even in election for posts like Police Commissionaire. I am more than a little uneasy with allowing judges to determine when prisoners should receive the vote for I fear they would not be politically neutral in the application of this power. It should be therefore delegated to a panel of accountable representatives who have been appointed by an appropriate (and accountable body). This body should not be directly elected since prisoners would have the vote in that election too.
This is not an easy case to make but it is one based on a rounded and I believe the correct view of what justice should be as much as about human rights and this is the terrain we need to shift the debate onto.