Is suffrage a universal right which cannot be denied, or should criminals have to work to get some of their rights back?by Shami Chakrabarti, Dominic Raab / August 20, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in September issue of Prospect Magazine
Voting is a basic right. In a democracy, votes cannot be a luxury granted to us by politicians for good behaviour. Universal suffrage is fundamental to the legitimacy of state power.
Why do we put people in prison? For public safety, of course—to keep dangerous people from causing more harm. We hope to deter crimes and punish those who have committed one. Most of us also think prison should serve as a place for rehabilitation, so that people leave less likely to break the law again.
Which of these aims is served by taking away prisoners’ right to vote? Not public safety, that’s for sure; exercising this democratic right won’t endanger others. And if you think losing the vote will be what stops someone from stealing a TV, you clearly haven’t understood the real causes of crime.
Perhaps it’s justified as punishment, then? This trap is made all the more tempting by that vicious, visceral anger we feel when faced with terrible crimes. But this is not the ground from which to make public policy—that way lies a medieval form of “justice” that inevitably denigrates all of our humanity. That’s why, when people go to prison, it is crucial they remain full citizens, still subject to our laws. We don’t allow them to be tortured or starved; why deprive them of the vote—a form of “civic death”? It’s unnecessary and serves no end.
Worse, it does serious harm. It further ostracises prisoners from society, actively undermining their rehabilitation into a responsible citizen. If prisoners want to participate in democracy, why not welcome their willingness to engage with the hope of a better society? That’s one of the things that voting is, after all.