Voting Rights for Prisoners
Submitting InstitutionBrunel University
Unit of AssessmentLaw
Summary Impact TypeLegal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Studies In Human Society: Criminology
Law and Legal Studies: Law
Summary of the impact
Easton's research on prisoners' rights has contributed to the policy
debate on prisoners' voting rights and has been used as evidence by lobby
groups which are seeking policy change in this area.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2005 that the UK's laws
disenfranchising most sentenced prisoners serving their sentences at the
time of the election breached the right to vote under the European
Convention on Human Rights (Hirst v UK). A change in the law would
affect more than 87,000 prisoners in English and Welsh prisons. Easton
contributed responses to both government consultations on the issue and
her research has been used by groups calling for change. Easton's research
has also been cited in the Parliamentary briefing paper on prisoners'
voting rights and her work on this topic has also been used to provide
information to the Joint Committee currently reviewing the Draft Voting
Eligibility Bill and possible options for change.
Easton's research addresses the problem of the civil and social death of
prisoners and the benefits of treating prisoners as citizens. Given the
record numbers of prisoners in the UK, the high incarceration rate
relative to other European societies, and the profile of the prison
population which is marked by social exclusion, Easton's research examines
ways of combating social exclusion, as recognising prisoners' civil and
social rights may promote the social inclusion of prisoners. In this
context Easton's research has focused specifically on the question of
prisoners' right to vote, examining in detail the justifications for
disenfranchisement, and the case for re-enfranchisement.
Easton's research examines the practicalities and feasibility of change
and the form it might take and examines the experience of other
jurisdictions, to see if prisoners could vote from within prison without
undermining the purity of the ballot box. The research has challenged the
key justifications of denial of the vote, including the arguments that
prisoners do not deserve voting rights, that it is a legitimate element of
punishment and that disenfranchisement encourages civic responsibility. In
favour of enfranchisement Easton has argued that treating prisoners as
citizens by giving them the vote may encourage them to reflect on their
civic obligations and this may ultimately have an influence on
re-offending. It would also add to the legitimacy of the prison system and
mean that the UK is fulfilling its obligations under international law
A change in the law to allow prisoners to vote would be significant
because it would reverse a process of exclusion that is deeply rooted in
English law, of treating the prisoner as socially dead. It would recognise
that, despite their wrongdoing, prisoners still remain members of society
and in challenging social exclusion, it would promote the re-integration
and rehabilitation of prisoners into society, which would have
implications for re-offending. It would also give prisoners an opportunity
to contribute to the democratic process as voters rather than mere
constituents, which could assist their efforts to improve prison
conditions. A change in the law would also affect large numbers of
prisoners, as the numbers of prisoners currently disenfranchised are
substantial. Easton has sought to influence the debate on this question,
through research which has been published in peer reviewed journals and a
research monograph published in the last few years. Easton responded to
the two Consultation Papers on this issue and noted that in the second
paper the government's position had shifted more towards change. In
addition she has she has responded to the proposals in the Draft Bill and
has participated in a Round Table discussion with the relevant
Easton's research has been widely cited in academic and other works,
examples of which are; Disenfranchisement News, The Sentencing
Project, Washington, DC, November 1 2006, www.sentencingproject.org;
Disenfranchisement News, The Sentencing Project, Washington, DC,
November 25 2009; C. Hamilton and U. Kilkelly (2008) `Human rights in
Irish prisons', Judicial Studies Institute Journal, 2, 58-85; D.
van zyl Smit and Sonja Snacken (2009), Principles of European Prison
Law and Policy, OUP (at 256); C.Hamilton and R. Lines (2009) `The
Campaign for Prisoner Voting Rights in Ireland', in Hamilton and Lines
(eds) Criminal Disenfranchisement in An International Perspective,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. pp205-250; C. Murray (2012) `A
Perfect Storm: Parliament and Prisoner Disenfranchisement', `Parliamentary
Affairs, 24 January 2012; Liberty, Response to the
Ministry of Justice's Second Stage Consultation on the Voting Rights of
Convicted Prisoners Detained in the UK London, Liberty September
White Prisoners' voting rights, House of Commons Library standard
note, September 2011 and April 2011 briefing papers for MPs.
- 2005-06 - research on disenfranchisement as punishment which led to Modern
Law Review paper.
- 2007-2007- research on citizenship and imprisonment which led to Journal
of Social Welfare and Family Law
- 2008 research on disenfranchisement and civic responsibility,
published in paper for Probation Journal.
- 2009-10 research on voting in other jurisdictions and feasibility of
change, published in chapter 8 of Prisoners' Rights.
- 2011 - research for 3rd edition of Sentencing and
Punishment published by OUP in 2012.
- 2012/13 contribution to debate through written evidence to Joint
Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill, published on
the Parliament webpage (21 June 2013), participation in Round Table
informal discussion with Committee (by invitation), discussions in the
media, and participation in debate in Criminal Justice Matters.
References to the research
- 'Electing the Electorate: the Problem of Prisoner Disenfranchisement',
S.M. Easton Modern Law Review (2006) 69 443-61. DOI:
Sentencing and Punishment: The Quest for Justice (2012) 3rd
edition, Oxford University Press, S. Easton and C. Piper.
Prisoners' Rights: Principles and Practice (2011) S. Easton
Routledge, 279 pp (chapter 8). (REF 2).
- `The prisoner's right to vote and civic responsibility', S.M. Easton Probation
Journal (2009) 56 224-37. DOI: 10.1177/0264550509337455.
- 'Constructing citizenship: making room for prisoners' rights', S.M.
Easton Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law (2008) 30
pp 127-146. (REF 2).
- `Should prisoners be allowed to vote', S. Easton, T. Black and M.K.
Dhami Criminal Justice Matters 90 (2012) 43-44.
Details of the impact
The estimated impact of the possible changes, based on the number of
total sentenced prisoners in February 2009, at the time the second
consultation paper was published, was approximately 28,800 prisoners, if
the vote were given to all prisoners serving a sentence of under 4 years.
The prison population has risen considerably since then, reaching over
87,000 in the autumn of 2011 so the numbers potentially benefiting from a
change are now much greater.
The first consultation on prisoners' voting rights took place during
2006-7. The second consultation was published in April 2009 and included
Easton's suggestion in her response to the first consultation, on using a
prisoner's last address to avoid block voting concerns, in Question 5
where "The government proposes that prisoners should be entitled to
register and vote on the basis of their previous or intended address ..."
. The second consultation paper also appeared to have taken account of
Easton's suggestion that the decision to grant or withdraw voting rights
for convicted prisoners should not be left to those passing sentences, as
it would constitute an additional burden for them, as this issue became
only one of the options to be considered, rather than the greater role
contemplated in the first consultation.
In September 2009, Liberty published its response to the second
consultation and cited Easton's work to support their argument that "for
principled and practical reasons a sentence of any term of imprisonment
should not lead to the loss of the right to vote". Liberty also cites
Easton in these words:
As Susan Easton has argued: `To further punish prisoners by
disenfranchisement is excessive and irrational and in most cases, bears
no relation to the nature of the offence. Denial of the right to vote
undermines respect for the law, and the principles of equality and
inclusion. Conversely, allowing prisoners to vote affirms the legitimacy
of the values of democratic society. The right is not a privilege but a
fundamental civil right... Voting would give prisoners a much-needed
voice in the democratic process.'
Also in 2009, UNLOCK circulated Easton's 2006 Modern Law Review paper to
its members as part of its Voting for Prisoners Campaign.
Easton discussed the issue in an article in The Guardian in February 9
2011; this article was reproduced on other news sites, including Ekklesia,
and was cited by the Criminal Justice Alliance http://criminaljusticealliance.org/11-02-18.htm#11
The article itself generated over two hundred comments from the public.
Easton has also been interviewed by Channel 4 News http://www.channel4.com/news/echr-judges-rule-on-thorny-issue-of-criminal-voting-rights
and has participated in a debate on LBC radio on this issue.
On 11 April 2011, the ECtHR gave the UK government six months to
introduce legislative proposals. However, an extension was granted in
August 2011 which allowed the government six months from the publication
of the judgement in the Scoppola v Italy (No 3) case. The hearing
took place on 2 November 2011. In response to the Scoppola
decision a draft bill has been produced which is under review and its
options include restoring the vote to selected groups of prisoners. The
Committee has been taking evidence from interested parties and will be
reporting to Parliament in the autumn of 2013.
Easton's work, specifically the Probation Journal article, is
also cited in the briefing paper Standard Note SN/PC/01764, dated 7
September 2011 given to MPs in support of their parliamentary duties. It
was also given to members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee to read
prior to the Round Table held at Westminster in June 2013 on the issues
raised by the Bill which Dr Easton was invited to attend. She was
questioned by the Committee on the arguments and evidence offered in her
paper and asked to consider the implications of the options in the draft
Bill. She informed the Committee of the advantages of allowing some
prisoners to vote. The Chair of the Committee has said that he is hoping
to reach a compromise on the issue.
Easton has also submitted a written response to Draft Voting Eligibility
(Prisoners) Bill http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/WrittenEvidence.svc/EvidencePdf/966
published on the Parliamentary website on 21 June 2013.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Department of Constitutional Affairs (2006) Consultation Paper. Voting
Rights of Convicted Prisoners Detained in the UK, London, DCA.
- Ministry of Justice (2009) Voting Rights of Convicted Prisoners
Detained within the United Kingdom, Second Stage Consultation,
London, Ministry of Justice.
- Liberty, Response to the Ministry of Justice's Second Stage
Consultation on the Voting Rights of Convicted Prisoners Detained in
the UK London, Liberty, September 2009: http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/pdfs/policy09/liberty-s-response-to-the-prisoner-voting-consultation-2.pdf.
- I. White (7 September 2011) Prisoners voting rights, House of Commons,
Parliament and Constitution Centre. — cites Probation Journal
- Minutes of Parliamentary Committee noting attendance at Round Table
discussion with experts on Wednesday 5th June 2013.