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Wednesday, November 03, 2010 

Votes for prisoners and John Hirst.

John Hirst is not an easy man to like. Convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility after killing his landlady in what can only be described as an almost entirely detached manner, he served 25 years when he had been sentenced to only 15, either as a result of his continuing violence in prison or his repeated challenges to authority, depending on whether you rely on the account of the authorities or Hirst and his defenders. Less often mentioned is that he was abused as a child after being placed in the care of Barnardo's, has Asperger's syndrome and having been given a life sentence, will remain on licence until he dies. Believing that he's paid his debt to society, feeling if anything it's society than now owes him something, he didn't come across in an interview with the Guardian back in 2006 as someone truly repentant for his terrible crime, at times sounding callous. Equally, he doesn't want to be forgiven for his offence, just to be accepted as he is.

If the opponents of giving prisoners the right to vote could have chosen someone to front the campaign, Hirst might not have been their first choice, but he'd have definitely been in with a shout. You'll also probably have accordingly conflicting emotions about his celebratory video posted on YouTube (see above), in which he opens a bottle of champagne from Sainsbury's, then lights a spliff, courtesy, as he says, of the local drug dealer, either finding it, as the Sun has already described it, sickening, or as I have to admit I did, rather amusing, although his line about murders, rapists and paedophiles gaining the franchise was getting very close indeed to the bone. Some of the reactions from politicians have also been needlessly hysterical, with David Cameron himself saying he feels "physically sick" at the thought of giving prisoners the right to vote, which is about as hyperbolic as you can get. While Hirst's various media appearances may not have helped win over many new supporters, the almost entirely personal tone that Andrew Neil took when Hirst appeared on the Daily Politics reflected poorly on him also.

The arguments against giving those serving prison sentences the right to vote are obvious: having committed a crime felt to be serious enough to deserve a period of time spent outside of normal society, it follows that while someone is inside that they shouldn't be able to influence what's happening outside. Making a convincing case for the other side is much more difficult: Hirst himself maintains that currently the only way to make your voice heard while in prison is to riot, which isn't quite true; they are other ways of seeking redress, and while MPs might not take you as seriously as those who do have the right to vote, there have been plenty that have taken up the causes of either former constituents or those currently indisposed in their local jails. Others have posited that prisoners would more likely to engage with politics - and as a result with politicians themselves if they had the right to vote, smoothing a way towards possible personal repentance and reform. While such claims are dubious, as Neil Robertson has previously stated, on firmer ground is how giving prisoners the right to vote would put votes in prison reform itself, and give the reform groups themselves something resembling a mandate.

Previously I was of the view that those imprisoned should be denied the vote for exactly the reason first mentioned in the previous paragraph. Having reassessed that, it then becomes just as difficult to decide whom of those incarcerated should get it. While Labour did effectively sit on its hands following the ECHR's ruling back in 2005, knowing full well that eventually it would have to legislate as the coalition is now facing up to, it did issue two consultations on the matter, first on whether they prisoners should have the vote or not, then on how long the sentence should be which precludes someone from the franchise. Unsurprisingly, the respondents to the first overwhelmingly either didn't want prisoners to have the vote at all, or for all prisoners to be given it. Certainly, it's difficult to justify in terms of the length of the sentence whether someone should or shouldn't be able to vote: are we seriously arguing that someone serving 4 years shouldn't be, whilst someone doing a two-year stretch should? Should recidivism for instance have an impact, with the amount of time from previous convictions coming into play? If not, then should it come to down to the nature of the crime itself, with only those guilty of the most serious offences forfeiting the ability to have any influence on politics?

The best option would seem to be to disallow those given either a life or indeterminate sentence from being able to vote. In both cases those who receive them have to prove that they are ready to re-enter society after serving a stated minimum, rather than being able to do so once they have completed it regardless of remorse or reform. While many who have committed terrible crimes would still be able to vote as a result, those considered to have gone so far beyond the realms of civilised society that they have to be permanently monitored would be denied it, hopefully satisfying the dilemma of not giving more rights to those who have denied them to others. John Hirst might not like that the end result of his case would still have meant he would not have been able to vote while in prison, and few are likely to thank him for his efforts, yet if in spite of everything he's done his campaign helps in reassuring those currently regarded as beyond the pale that they are not completely excluded from society and can turn their lives around, his efforts if not his motives will in time come to be seen as anything but ignoble.

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The best option would seem to be to disallow those given either a life or indeterminate sentence from being able to vote.

Delete "or indeterminate" and I think you're on to something. But IPP sentences are a monstrosity, as Brian has shown.

To some extent the consultations have been overtaken by events. the Frodl case [2010] ECHR 508 (where the applicant was a murderer) http://bit.ly/au58lA (judgment via BAILII) suggests that it is only where the convicted person can only be barred from voting if he or she has an election related offence.

Phil: I quite agree on that score, yet it'd be highly difficult to exclude one and not the other on the basis I've set out.

"The best option would seem to be to disallow those given either a life or indeterminate sentence from being able to vote".


Hirst v UK (No2) was taken by a man serving life for manslaughter, and Frodl v Austria was taken by a man serving life for murder. In both cases the Court stated that they are entitled to the human right to the vote.

The only limitations allowed must be for example electoral fraud.

Well, we'll see. There are plenty of other European nations also in breach if that's the case; I seriously can't see the government legislating for all prisoners to have the vote willingly without a further legal challenge.

The British statute has already been declared incompatible with the ECHR by Smith v Scott, a Scottish inner House (appellate) case (2007) CSIH 9 http://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/opinions/2007CSIH9.html - the government should have responded to this long before now.

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