The issue requires rather more than simply considering whether it is right or wrong for criminals to vote; it demands a closer examination of what exactly we want to achieve through our justice system. Do we want only justice, punishment and retribution? Or do we want justice, punishment and rehabilitation? In short, it’s a choice between a cycle of recidivism or a society where everyone is given a second chance.
It seems to me that the most obvious choice is a society where everyone is given a second chance. This is most suited to British values of tolerance, self-determination and perseverance. One would hope that somebody from the most humble of backgrounds could make anything of themselves and so too should somebody who makes a mistake be given the opportunity and the means to reintegrate into society and begin to contribute. It is my firm belief that for rehabilitation to work and for criminals to reintegrate, they need to feel included within society. If a person feels some obligation to a society and has a sense of inclusivity, i.e. through voting, then they are less likely to reoffend.
But my firm belief is based on more than just reckoning. Take the example of the Norwegian prison system; famously liberal in most respects, Norway has not thrown away this reputation in the name of revenge in its prisons. All prisoners are granted the vote (excepting cases where a prisoner has been convicted of crimes against the state or democratic order) and criminals held in Bastoy Prison are treated like humans. The have access to most of the comforts that everybody else outside enjoys. Some inmates are even trusted to operate the boat that brings police officers to and from the island prison.
The tabloid press may have you believe that this is a recipe for high reoffending rates. If a prison is ‘cushy’, anyone held inside will yearn to be readmitted, surely? But they would be wrong.
This island prison has a reoffending rate of just 16%, making it the lowest in Europe. Compare that to the UK where there are 14 prisons with reoffending rates above 70% - 2010 figures that, I gather, are rather better than more recent figures. But it’s not just this particularly humane prison that has low reoffending rates in Norway; Norway as a whole has amongst the lowest reoffending rates in Europe and indeed the world.
A fairly common objection to giving prisoners the vote is that they don’t deserve to be able to exercise their democratic right, given what they may have committed. Do they not deserve to have their human rights respected, even in prison? If they don’t, then why not go further? Why not deprive them of food and water, why not torture them?
Of course, you may not think that voting ought to be held in the same esteem as other human rights that are arguably far more important. The United Nations might disagree. The right for a citizen to participate in government is clearly laid out in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights so it is clear that prisoners in the UK are being denied, as far as the ECHR and the UNHRC can see, their fundamental rights.
Any objection that those rights do not accurately reflect British values is not only stale and repetitive but demonstrably closed-minded. The idea that such a distinction between ‘British’ and universal human rights exists is to my mind abhorrent and seriously damages our reputation as a country of fairness, sensibility and justice. After all, as Dostoyevsky claimed, ‘the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its prisoners.’
For the UK to allow prisoners serving short sentences to vote would be a start, but an unimpressive one. We need to go the whole way to ensure our prison system is a more effective and beneficial system for our society. That is where justice lies: somebody respecting and contributing to a society they previously damaged.