Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Should murderers have the right to vote in prison?

By Jonathan Simon

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 (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 (Feb. 7), 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. ....

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog, Governing Through Crime. The rest of this post, and an earlier one on the same subject, can be found here.