Response 889625622

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1. Do you think that prisoners’ right to vote in Scottish Parliament and Local Government elections should be linked to the length of their sentence?

Please select one item
Ticked No

2. If your answer to Question 1 is ‘no’, what would be your preferred approach to extending prisoners’ voting rights?

If your answer to Question 1 is ‘no’, what would be your preferred approach to extending prisoners’ voting rights?
Howard League Scotland believes that Scotland should legislate to remove the ban on prisoner voting in its entirety. There was no parliamentary scrutiny in bringing in the ban on prisoner voting in 1969, and between 1969 and 2000 the ban even extended to prisoners held on remand, who had not been convicted of any offence. It could therefore be argued that there was questionable justification for the ban at its outset. Extending the vote to prisoners is not simply about criminal justice, penal reform or rehabilitation. It is about human rights: creating a universal franchise for all adults in Scotland and ensuring democratic rights for all citizens. The existence of a universal franchise is an important measure of the strength of our democracy and of social equality. Using that measure, Scotland’s democracy currently falls short. Imprisonment is the deprivation of liberty alone, and thus nothing which is not inevitable as a result of this, should be included in punishment. Indeed, on 6 December 2001, the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Human Rights Committee, advised that a ban on prisoner voting “amounts to an additional punishment” . This view is not shared by all, but as David Strang (former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland) pointed out in his evidence to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee (7 September 2017) , that if not having the right to vote is a punishment, it is a very arbitrary one: “It is an odd punishment, because it punishes only those who want to vote … If you are someone who is not registered and is not interested in voting, it is no punishment for you at all, because it does not change your life. We have the imposition of a secondary punishment, in addition to the deprivation of liberty, but only on those who have an interest in voting.” Its arbitrary nature is also highlighted by the fact that actual vote loss is dependent on a combination of the date of sentencing diet, how long someone has previously been spent on remand and on the timing of elections, rather than the sentence or offence committed. As we stated in our Submission to the Referendum (Scotland) Bill Committee (March 2013), we must also remember that decisions about imprisonment are often not clear-cut, and thus there is not a straightforward divide between the types of offences which attract imprisonment and those which do not. Using their discretion, sentencers take many issues into account, including the welfare of the offender him or herself and which particular community sentencing options are available in the local area. Imprisonment, rather than conviction then becomes the determining factor in whether someone is able to vote or not. We believe very strongly that a custodial sentence by itself sets too low a threshold for the loss of such an important right as the right to vote, whilst the inconsistent application of sentencing supports our argument for a lifting of the ban in its entirety, rather than linking it to the length of sentence or type of crime. In denying prisoners the vote, an additional punishment is also inflicted, by way of ‘civic death’: “such people [prisoners] are also wounded in a civic sense, in that they have already been substantively disenfranchised before their formal disenfranchisement by punishment. 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. They are therefore civically wounded, and then as part of their punishment—or as an accidental consequence of it—we apply civic death in the form of full and formal disenfranchisement during their punishment. To make matters more absurd—in my view—we insist that they resurrect themselves civically at the moment of their release and enter back into society, fully prepared to make a robust and rounded contribution as politically and civically engaged citizens. That is completely paradoxical.” (Professor Fergus McNeill, SCCJR ) However long they are sentenced for, prisoners are still citizens and members of society. Howard League Scotland thus supports Professor Fergus McNeill’s stance; the point made by Dr.Cormac Behan (Lecturer in Criminology, University of Sheffield) in his written evidence that “[t]he concept of civic death on which the denial of the right to vote to prisoners is predicated is an antiquated and outdated idea in a modern democracy”; and the European Court of Human Rights (Hirst v the United Kingdom (No.2)) judgement that “there is no room in the Convention for the old idea of “civic death” that lies behind the ban on convicted prisoners’ voting” . Professor Fergus McNeill’s evidence also makes the point that our prisons contain those from the most disadvantaged communities – alluding to the “warehousing problem … [prison as] a place to hold the damaged and traumatised”, which the Rt. Hon. Henry McLeish identified in his 2008 report, Scotland’s Choice: The Report of the Scottish Prisons Commission and which remains true to this day. The ban on prisoner voting thus impacts disproportionately on the most deprived and vulnerable, doing nothing to minimise the social inequality which members of the Scottish Parliament are adamant must be addressed. Research has shown that reintegration is aided by strong links between prisoners and their local community. Indeed, there is a view in academia that such links could be one of the ‘hooks for change’ which encourages desistance from crime. In the words of a serving prisoner in Ireland, whom Dr.Cormac Behan interviewed as part of his research: “Voting allows the prisoner to feel part of a wider community, something incarceration takes away … Being in custody takes away a large part of a person’s feeling of self-worth, being allowed to vote gives back some of that lost feeling. This in turn will make better citizens” Removing the right to vote adds to the dislocation between prisoner and community, increases the ‘othering’ of prisoners, and reinforces social exclusion in such a way as to work against successful rehabilitation. That is not to say that voting will make a significant difference in itself, but that it could contribute positively to rehabilitative efforts, signalling that prisoners are still part of our society and have a stake in its future. Howard League Scotland believes effective rehabilitation is also central to addressing the needs of victims of crime. We are prone to seeing victims and perpetrators as mutually exclusive, and thus increasing rights for one, is often seen as being at the cost of the other. Respecting the rights of victims, as we should, does not require that prisoners cannot vote, particularly when we are not aware of any evidence that it functions as a deterrent. In conclusion, by extending voting rights to all prisoners, the Scottish Parliament would clearly signal its commitment to justice and fairness, and Scotland would make a bold statement on the international stage about the inclusive and democratic character of its society. As the Canadian Supreme Court stated in Richard Sauvé v Attorney General of Canada & others (2002), “Denial of the right to vote … undermines the legitimacy of the government, the effectiveness of government, and the rule of law … It countermands the message that everyone is equally worthy and entitled to respect under the law”. Voting is too hard-won a fundamental human right to be lost automatically on imprisonment.

4. If your answer to the above is ‘another duration’, please specify this here.

If your answer to the above is ‘another duration’, please specify this here.

5. Do you have any comments on the practicalities of prisoner voting?

Do you have any comments on the practicalities of prisoner voting?
We support the proposal that prisoners would be registered to vote in a home constituency or ward, not at the address of the prison. It is important that prisoners with low levels of literacy are made aware of an opportunity to vote, and that the necessary help to do so is made available to them.

6. Do you have any other comments that have not been captured in the responses you have provided above?

Do you have any other comments that have not been captured in the responses you have provided above?

About you

Are you responding as an individual or an organisation?

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Ticked Organisation

What is your organisation?

Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland