Friday, 11 February 2011

Lock 'em up and throw away the key to the ballot box?

Prison. What's it for? Punishment or rehabilitation? Do convicts merely lose their liberty or are their human rights taken away too? Do we differentiate between people in for a few months for minor offences and those locked away for longer terms.

What if you happen to be inside when an election is called? If you were sentenced to time in a British jail today you'd have to be expecting to serve more than four years to still be there when the next general election happens. In Scotland the average sentence (not including life sentences for murder) is over nine months (281 days).

Today MPs voted by a margin of 234 to 22 (where the hell were the rest of them is this is so important?) to defy the European Court of Human Rights' decision that inmates should be enfranchised.

This isn't a simple issue, it's not black and white. There's a whole rainbow of shades of grey between the two extreme opinions. If you believe that convicted criminals lose their human rights and should be left to rot then it's clear cut; how can you let these people have the vote? Of course you can't.

But I think that prison is about more than punishment. Convicts lose their freedom. Massively. And so they should. But we shouldn't forget about them. One way we judge a society is by how it treats its prisoners, and it's important that however long they're sentenced for that they're prepared for what will happen when they're released. Teach them functional skills, prepare them for work, keep them busy to avoid the fall into drug use and the "university of crime." As the end of a sentence approaches and we're trying to prepare a convict for life outside again, why not let them have a vote if an election comes around? Inmates preparing to be released should be encouraged to take an interest in the society that they'll be re-joining. Let them engage by voting.

On Wednesday Eric Illsley, the MP for Barnsley Central pleaded guilty to charges of fraud relating to £14,000 worth of expense claims. He's due to be sentences in four weeks. If he gets more than 12 months the Representation of the People Act 1981 will cause him to be disqualified from parliament, his seat will be declared vacant and a by-election will be called. If he gets less than a year he doesn't have to give up his seat. How he'll represent his constituents and where he'll hold surgeries is a bit of a mystery. It's grossly hypocritical to have laws that allow MPs doing time to keep their jobs, but to stop convicts from voting them out of office.

So where do I stand on this? Well, not all prisoners should be allowed a vote, but perhaps those in open prisons preparing for release should get their place back on the electoral register, or maybe those serving less than a year. And what about prisoners on remand who are yet to face trial?

It's not easy, but sometimes being a small-l liberal means you have to support things that aren't popular.

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