Prisoners' voting rights in spotlight at University

The controversial issue of prisoners' voting rights will come under the spotlight at the University of Sheffield this week (Friday 25 May 2012) at a public workshop, Democracy and Criminal Justice, run by world-renowned experts on the matter.

Led by Dr Christopher Bennett from the University of Sheffield's Department of Philosophy, academics from the fields of law, politics, philosophy and representatives from penal reform groups, think-tanks and policy makers will lead the sessions which aim to open up the debate surrounding prisoner rights in the UK.

A prisoner behind barsThe UK Government are currently at a crossroads regarding the issue after a long legal battle with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which judged that the current blanket ban preventing all prisoners from voting contravened the European Convention on Human Rights. In April 2011 the UK Government lost its final appeal against the repeal of the ban and was given six months to introduce legislation repealing it.

Despite the legal situation, the ban in its current form appears to have strong political and public support. A debate held in the House of Commons on Thursday 10 February 2011 backed the continuation of the current ban by 234 votes to 22.

At the time of that debate, Prime Minister David Cameron said: "It makes me physically ill to contemplate giving the vote to prisoners. They should lose some rights, including the right to vote."

"Nevertheless," explained Dr Bennett, "the Government seems to accept that they must comply with the ECHR ruling or face damaging compensation claims."

The workshop is part of a wider project between the University's Department of Philosophy, School of Law and Department of Politics entitled Democracy and Criminal Justice.

Dr Bennett continued: "Just this week (22 May 2012), the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg confirmed its verdict that the UK must comply with its judgement, that the blanket ban on voting rights for prisoners contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights.

"The Court are concerned that a fundamental right is denied to prisoners simply because they are in prison – and whether an offender goes to prison isn't just a matter of the seriousness of the crime. So the removal of the vote at present has an element of arbitrariness to it. What the Government needs to do now is to explain the principles that call for the removal of the vote from prisoners. Democracy and Criminal Justice will address these key questions of principle."

The questions addressed at the workshop will include:
• Would the UK be right on principled grounds to maintain a blanket ban on prisoners' voting, or is a blanket ban a breach of human rights?
• Is a blanket ban on prisoners’ voting rights undemocratic?
• Is a ban on voting justified by the moral demand to make sentences reflect the seriousness of the crime?
• If the blanket ban is to be lifted, with what should it be replaced? For instance:

1. Giving the right to vote to prisoners serving relatively short sentences, while maintaining a ban for long-term prisoners jailed for more serious crimes.
2. Giving courts the power to impose loss of voting rights as an additional punishment at sentencing.
3. Allowing all prisoners the right to vote.

Additional information

Democracy and Criminal Justice workshop
Friday 25th May, 10am-5pm, Halifax Hall, University of Sheffield – the event is open to members of the press.
For more information on the project visit:
Democracy and Criminal Justice

Participants in the Democracy and Criminal Justice project:
Cormac Behan (Law, University of Sheffield)
Christopher Bennett (Philosophy, University of Sheffield)
Corey Brettschneider (Political Science, Brown University, US)
Alasdair Cochrane (Politics, University of Sheffield)
Bobby Cummins
Blair Gibbs (Head of Crime and Justice, Policy Exchange)
Sarah Hall (Howard League for Penal Reform)
Tony Kelly (Taylor and Kelly)
Aidan O’Neill QC (Matrix Chambers)
Dirk van Zyl Smit (Law, University of Nottingham and Advocate of the High Court of South Africa)
Daniel Viehoff (Philosophy, University of Sheffield)

The University of Sheffield

With nearly 25,000 students from 125 countries, the University of Sheffield is one of the UK's leading and largest universities. A member of the Russell Group, it has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

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For further information please contact:
Amy Stone
Media Relations Officer
The University of Sheffield
0114 222 1046