No. 9 of #50cases.
“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” We’ve all heard this muttered by a bad-talking TV cop slapping handcuffs on a villain. There’s a point to the phrase. Punishment makes sure that justice is done. And justice must be done. It is the foundation for any healthy society.
But the European Court of Human Rights ruled that justice does not require a blanket ban to stops all prisoners from voting. The Court’s judgment was based on a case brought to it by John Hirst, who had been convicted of manslaughter. He claimed that he was denied his right to regular, free and fair elections because he was not allowed to vote.
The case should have had a significant effect on many prisoners – not just Mr. Hirst. The judges accepted that the right to vote did not need to be given to every prisoner. But they also argued that a blanket ban could not be justified for two reasons. First, voting is a right and not a privilege: it is something we are all automatically entitled to just by being citizens, not something that needs to be earned by good behaviour. The government was therefore wrong to say that people who have behaved badly can automatically be stopped from voting.
Second, a blanket ban does not distinguish between different prisoners, who have committed different crimes. The punishment is meant to fit the crime. We even have different types of prisons for different types of offences. So why should all prisoners be subject to the exact same extra punishment?
This case is probably more famous for the anger it caused in the UK than the outcome. That controversy has meant that now, 10 years after the original judgment, it has still not been implemented. It may be that this judgment, which probably only requires that a few thousand of the UK’s 80,000 prisoners get to vote, leads to the UK leaving the European Convention. Ultimately, it might seem the Court was going too easy on prisoners by getting rid of the total voting ban. But they’re still being punished: in all the months and years of missed moments and memories. They’re still doing their time.