Unlocking Democracy: Five reasons why Scotland should give prisoners the vote

Caitlin Logan

As the Scottish Parliament’s equality and human rights committee recommends lifting the ban on prisoner voting, CommonSpace takes a closer look at the reasoning behind this

THE BLANKET ban on prisoner voting should be lifted in full by the Scottish Government, according to a new report by the Scottish Parliament’s equality and human rights committee.

The cross-party committee headed up by SNP MSP Christina McKelvie heard evidence from a range of experts on the issue after the Scottish Parliament assumed new powers over the franchise under the Scotland Act which came into force in May 2017.

At present, Scotland and the rest of the UK are one of the few governments within the Council of Europe (CofE)’s 47 member states to enforce a blanket ban on prisoner voting, along with Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Russia.

READ MORE: People are held in prison before trial too often, says chief prisons inspector

After several rulings from the CofE’s European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) stating that the UK’s policy breached the European Convention of Human Rights, the UK Government announced late last year that it would lift the ban for people in the community on ‘temporary licence’ (a form of parole aimed at rehabilitating offenders).

This step has been accepted by the Council of Europe as meeting its requirements, but the equality and human rights committee report published today (14 May) argues that only a full lift of the ban would address its concerns with the policy.   

Several key reasons for this position, examined below, are laid out in the report. 

1.) It would let Scotland both follow and lead on international human rights standards.

The report states that lifting the ban on prisoner voting would support Scotland to meet its international obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protect the right to vote.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has spoken out against prisoner voting bans, arguing that it “fails to discern the justification for such practice in modern times” and that the policy “does not contribute towards the prisoner’s reformation”.

Currently, numerous European countries have no or minimal restrictions on prisoner voting, including Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, while many others operate partial bans based on the length of sentence or type of offence.

While the Scottish Parliament committee is awaiting more information on why the Council of Europe has accepted the minor reforms proposed by the UK Government, the report explains that the evidence heard and the experiences of other countries suggests that allowing some prisoners, but not others, to vote could still be open to legal challenge on a human rights basis.

Ultimately, the committee argues that Scotland should “aim for a higher standard than recently established at UK level” in order to show leadership on human rights issues.

2.) The ban ignores the complex social and structural issues behind offending.

The report highlights the fact that the prison population is largely made up of people who have experienced a range of inequalities, barriers and problems in their own lives which led to their interactions with the criminal justice system.

As such, a policy which further disengages a group which Professor Fergus McNeill of the Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research argued are “substantially disenfranchised before their formal disenfranchisement” is not regarded as an appropriate solution to the underlying issues.

McNeill said of prisoners: “They come from communities where their life opportunities are severely restricted, where health inequalities are profound and where levels of political participation are already minimal and deeply troubling.”

Jan Anderson, from Access to Industry, which supports ex-offenders, echoed this view: “Pretty much 100 per cent of the women who I am working with have experienced poverty and disadvantage, and have had a huge amount of psychological trauma and abuse in their lives.”

Furthermore, chief executive of the Scottish community justice organisation Sacro Tom Halpin said that “the vast majority of the people who are termed “offenders” quickly reappear in different parts of the system as victims”.

With this in mind, it is argued that a policy which seeks to rehabilitate prisoners and improve, rather than cut off, their engagement with society and the democratic system would be preferable.

3.) It would support rehabilitation of offenders as members of the community.

Relatedly, many of those giving evidence to the committee suggested that a removal of the right to vote was counterproductive to an approach which seeks to rehabilitate offenders and reduce reoffending. Professor McNeill said that the “civic death” imposed by such a policy does not sit well with the aims of modern criminal justice.

“The problem arises from the fact that we are holding on to ancient and medieval sentiments that drive the desire to exclude while at the same time trying to have a modern conception of reintegration,” McNeill said. “My fundamental view is that we cannot have both.”

Tom Halpin explained that working with offenders can be a complex process, requiring “deep issues” to be addressed, and argued that this process was weakened by the contradiction of telling people “they are disenfranchised at the same time as telling them that they have a future as a citizen”.

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland David Strang agreed that being able to vote could support prisoners’ rehabilitation as citizens, stating: “What we all want is a situation where when a person leaves prison at the end of their sentence they are less likely to reoffend and are more likely to be a responsible citizen.

“Voting and taking part in the democratic process—as is taught in modern studies classes in school—is part of being a responsible citizen.”

4.) Prisoners voting could engage politicians more with the issues facing the prison system.

An additional benefit of lifting the ban which is touched upon in the report is that it would open up the possibility for politicians to engage more directly with prisons and prisoners. Dr Cormac Behan, lecturer in criminology at University of Sheffield, suggested that this might take the form of hustings in prisons.

This, Behan suggested, could allow for debate on policies around the prison system. “If politicians were to go into prisons to see what impact penal policy has on a day-to-day basis and whether it is effective and leads to what the public good should be, which is people coming out of prison and not committing crime again, that would enrich their understanding of the impact of their policies,” he said.

This, the report explains, could allow prisoners a voice in holding politicians to account for decisions impacting on criminal justice, include “the conditions of incarceration”.

5.) Negative media coverage and public attitudes must not prevent evidence-based policy making.

Finally, the committee openly addresses one of the reasons why a policy shift on this issue is often sidestepped or opposed: media and public pressure.

The report notes that the perception of prisoner voting as a matter of great controversy is not universal, as Dr Behan’s research in Ireland where the ban was lifted in 2007 found that it passed with little consequence or opposition.

In the UK, however, he said the media have “generally come down against allowing prisoners to vote” and that the issue for the UK can be regarded as a “sort of perfect storm of law and order, judicial activism and what can be perceived as European interference”.

In fact, today’s Scottish Daily Mail ran with the front page headline: “Outrage as SNP-led Holyrood committee calls for a ballot box in every prison and demands: Give killers and rapists the right to vote.”

The committee argued that such responses must not be allowed to stifle progressive policy making, stating in the report: “We strongly believe that decisions should be taken on rational grounds informed by debate rather than on gut feelings or on populism.”

Picture courtesy of Matthias Müller