To: The Rt Hon David Cameron MP, The Prime Minister; The Cabinet; Members of the House of Commons
I write this open letter in response to the public outcry at the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECHR) ruling, suggesting that withholding a prisoner’s right to vote goes against human rights law. Whilst I’m uncomfortable with ECHR’s assertion that this is a human rights, I do welcome the judgement, and would like to encourage you, using criminological theory, to respect this ruling, and hope to provide some suggestions as to how legislation changes could look in practice.
Scholars and practitioners from the field of offender desistance and rehabilitation commented about how allowing offenders to function as (insofar as possible) normal members of society leads to increased chances of desistance and lowers to likelihood of re-offending by improving a convict’s sense of self-worth and strengthening their ties to the community. I believe that affording some prisoners to opportunity to vote in political elections provides us with a unique opportunity to further encourage this population to change their behavioural habits and live as contributing members of their local communities.
Pomper and Sernekos (1991) uncovered the link between political activity (i.e. voting in an election) and having structural and tangible ties to the local community. These ties are also implicated as a critical factor for long-term desistance from crime (Laub and Sampson, 2001). Therefore, it seems logical to argue that allowing offenders to vote in elections results in an increase in their feelings of attachment to their local area, which in turn leads to a reduced risk of offending.
Naturally, there has been widespread criticism of the ECHR ruling – particularly from the right-wing, conservative, EU-sceptic sections of the British media. However, I urge you, as the lawmakers of this country, not to bow to public pressure. I understand that any move that seems to support this ruling would probably lead to reduced public support for your parties, which is why I address this letter to every member of the House. Cross-party support for new, reforming legislation would send a clear message to the British public – “yes, this idea seems counter-productive, but we are striving to reduce offending rates in your communities”. In addition, instead of appearing weak and submissive towards the Strasbourg Court, I personally believe that implementing changes would lead you all to benefiting from increased levels of support and respect from the academic community, as well as from charitable partners working towards reducing offending rates.
In terms of how changes could occur, I would not recommend lifting the ban on prisoner voting completely. Instead, I would suggest that a more sensible, and modest, idea would be to offer voting rights to those who are due to be released from their sentence within that particular Government’s term (i.e. before the next general election). This would mean that prisoners would have the opportunity to shape and influence the political landscape of the communities they will be released into, meaning that they feel an attachment to the area from the day of release. Of course, this would exclude indeterminate prisoners (representing 16% of all prisoners, accoring the Ministry of Justice statistics, 2011) from ever being able to vote whilst in prison, but this is a small price to pay if we can improve long-term desistance opportunities for the other 84% of prisoners.
I hope that these arguments have given you all, and anybody else who reads this open letter, something to think about, and I would encourage you to consult with experts in this field about the benefits of changing the law regarding prisoner votes before jumping on mass-media and right-wing bandwagons. I eagerly anticipate movement on this issue.
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