(Title Image: Daily Post)
Yesterday, the Senedd debated the Communities Committee report on prisoner voting, which controversially recommended that the prisoner franchise be extended to those serving sentences of four years or less – though some categories of prisoner (such as those on remand) are already eligible to vote. I’ve offered my own thoughts on it here.
Prisoners remain citizens
Chair of the Committee, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East), was well aware that the issue was a highly controversial one, but the fact remained that prisoners are citizens and a blanket ban on prisoner voting was a contravention of human rights.
“Removing the right to vote is also part of a process that treats prisoners as outsiders: they are not like the rest of us and should be different. This is not good for them and not good for wider society. It hinders the process of reform and does not help with reducing reoffending or social cohesion.”
– Chair of the Communities Committee, John Griffiths AM
Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) admitted she was sceptical about the idea at first, but having spoken to prisoners, they have issues – particularly relating to life upon release – that warrants them having a say. Voting isn’t a privilege and is something we would want all citizens to do – including those behind bars.
Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) argued that the report was balanced and looked in detail at the arguments for and against. It recognised that the public doesn’t necessarily support the idea, but it’s the job of politicians, when discussing criminal justice, to properly consider rehabilitation of offenders, not just punishment.
Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) and Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) both echoed this by saying that if prisoners had the vote it might make politicians think more about the awful prison conditions and also think more about how the criminal justice system works.
Replying on behalf of the Assembly Commission, the Llywydd, Elin Jones (Plaid, Ceredigion), felt it was her duty to ensure that the electoral franchise for the Senedd was compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the committee inquiry in itself couldn’t be considered the equivalent of Stage 1 scrutiny of a Bill. Therefore the Commission opposes introducing amendments extending the prisoner franchise in the Senedd & Elections Bill.
Depriving freedoms is a deterrent
Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) argued that depriving someone of their liberties was an active deterrent. The report cited evidence which suggests prisoner voting would play little part in rehabilitation. Extending the franchise to prisoners serving less than four years could include those serving sentences for aggravated assault, carrying a knife and some sex offences.
“It’s been a long-established practice in our country that those who break the laws of our nation lose the right to have any say in the making of those laws, and we should not abandon that practice. By breaking our laws, prisoners have demonstrated their disregard for our society and its citizens, along with the victims of their crimes, and in every crime, there is a victim. They should not have a say in how our country is run.”
– Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West)
Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East) argued that this would create “a bureaucratic nightmare” for prison staff. Michelle Brown AM (Ind, North Wales) said it would send a message that the political class were out of touch and, in some circumstances, would allow convicted paedophiles to have a stake in society.
Prisoner franchise to be extended by 2022
Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), announced that the Welsh Government will extend the prisoner voting franchise:
“We will work to introduce legislation in this Assembly to enable prisoners and young people in custody from Wales who are serving a custodial sentence of less than four years to vote in local government elections. Our aim is that eligible prisoners and young people in custody will be able to vote at the next ordinary local government elections during 2022.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James
It can’t be done in time for the next Senedd election in 2021 as a Bill would need to be passed before June 2020. 2022 would give more time for the appropriate assessments and consultation with the prison service.
She estimated that the number of additional prisoners in Wales who’ll be eligible to vote under this policy will be “2,000 at most”.