Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Should murderers have the right to vote in prison?

The fact that I'm even thinking about this issue is a testament to the cognitive difference of living in the European Community for the past six months. Five years ago, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held in the case of HIRST v UK, Application No. 74025/01 (read the case online here) that the UK must revise its law banning all prisoners from voting in at least Parliamentary elections. Hirst, who was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a discretionary life sentence with a tariff of fifteen years (the minimum term prior to any possible parole, based on retributive and deterrent considerations), claimed among other things, that the voting ban violated his rights under Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which provides that:

"The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature."

The Court declined to specify which prisoners had to be able to vote, noting that in this area, the "margin of appreciation is wide" within which courts should defer to legislative judgments about the purposes of punishment and the conduct of elections; but they clearly implied that under Article 3 of Protocol No. 1, some prisoner must be given the right to vote.

In November, a chamber (roughly the equivalent of appellate court panels in the US) of the European Court of Human Rights took notice of the fact that five years and at least one national election had gone by since the decision in HIRST and the UK had still not revised its law. IN, CASE OF GREENS and M.T. v. THE UNITED KINGDOM, Applications nos. 60041/08 and 60054/08 (read it here) the Court ordered the UK to come up with a new law within six months, and ordered them to pay 5000 Euros in expenses to prisoners with claims currently before the court (with the strong implication that a similar payment would be required for any future litigation, perhaps multiplied by thousands of prisoners who could be expected to bring cases should the government continue to ignore the court).

As noted in yesterday's post, there is something of a backbench rebellion going on among both Tory and Labour MPs who would like to snarl at the European Court and denounce it for interfering with sovereignty. The government, however, is clearly moving rapidly toward a new law (the old one dates back to 1870). This morning on BBC4 radio, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke indicated as much (listen to it here, note there is along interlude on the finances of the Supreme Court before they get to the voting issue), and while he would not say where the government wants to draw the line, he did trot out the clear cases of those who would be excluded, murderers and rapists.

While the European Court may well approve not only the exclusion of murderers and rapists, but lots of other persons sent to prison for significant sentences (after all they did talk about "the margin of appreciation" being "wide" for the political choice element), there are some good reasons why a government less committed to populist punitiveness might well recognize a duty to let even murderers vote and an outside chance the Court will make them do it.

First consider that the Court declined in HIRST itself to question the legitimacy of the governments goal of punishing offenders through denying them the vote (choosing instead to focus on proportionality). But they may have to reach this issue in the next case. Is denying a murderer the right to vote for Parliament a legitimate form of punishment? In HIRST, the Grand Chamber did say this in paragraph 69 of its judgment:

In this case, the Court would begin by underlining that prisoners in general continue to enjoy all the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Convention save for the right to liberty, where lawfully imposed detention expressly falls within the scope of Article 5 of the Convention.

This expresses a theme elaborated even more by the The European Prison Rules (Recommendation No. R (87) 3 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe) which states in paragraph 64:

Imprisonment is by the deprivation of liberty a punishment in itself. The conditions of imprisonment and the prison regimes shall not, therefore, except as incidental to justifiable segregation or the maintenance of discipline, aggravate the suffering inherent in this.

While the recommendations of the Committee of Ministers are not binding on the Court, they have been influential. The essence of the argument is that, at least in Europe, punishment is limited to deprivation of liberty (and all that may be administratively necessary to accomplish that). Moreover, if there is to be a surplus beyond deprivation of liberty (the express argument of the UK government in HIRST), it surely cannot be one focused on status degradation, which offends the dignity principle running through much of the binding treaty law to which the UK is a signatory. For example, Article 10 International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights provides:

"1. All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person." (emphasis added)

I am taken, for the moment, with an analogy suggested in the Grand Chamber's judgment in HIRST to a prisoner's family status. In paragraph 69, the Court articulated examples of rights that prisoners do not lose by being imprisoned, and the very first one, other than the right not to be abused that they mention is "they continue to enjoy the right to respect for family life."

Should a murderer have their parental rights and duties terminated by conviction and imprisonment (beyond those duties made impossible by loss of liberty and penal segregation)? Is not being a parent just as honorable a status in our societies as being a voter? In fact, both mix duty and honor.

Beyond punishment, the UK government could claim that banning murderers and rapists is essential to preserve the integrity of the electoral process. Even assuming that murderers and rapists would vote their class interest in weakening criminal laws and law enforcement, what plausible argument is there that any competitive candidate standing for MP would seek to attract such votes by advertising their desire to be as lenient as possible with murderers and rapists, or weakening law enforcement to assure that fewer of them would get caught.

Perhaps there is an argument that if all prisoners were allowed to vote in the Parliamentary constituency where they are currently serving time they could swing a close election. But the government has a easy solution to that problem. It can allow prisoners to vote in the constituency in which they lived prior to incarceration (which is more likely to be their relevant community in any event). Even under conditions of mass incarceration (and just between the two cases, the numbers of potentially effected prisoners in the UK had grown by tens of thousands), there is no plausible scenario under which prisoner votes would alter the policy positions taken by candidates on law and justice issues.

On the other side there are compelling arguments that voting is an example of pro-social, non-self interested behavior that should be an integral part of the rehabilitative process which the UK remains committed to (at least in theory).

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