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With just two months to go until the UK general election, forecasting experts in the field of political science are expecting a dead heat between the Labour and Conservative parties leading to an inevitable hung parliament. Indeed statistics show that Britain’s famous two party system seems to be a thing of the past providing windows of opportunity for smaller parties to secure votes, seats and pave the way for future coalitions to come.

However, one group of the population who will be excluded from participating in this year’s election are prisoners serving a custodial sentence in the UK. Despite the recent reinstated ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the UK’s blanket ban on the prisoner vote is illegal, the UK government have stood their ground to ensure that prisoners do not get the vote – a prospect which Prime Minister David Cameron has admitted makes him feel “physically sick”.

This is of course a fiercely debated topic where one school of thought argues that individuals lose the right to vote when they commit a crime and are by virtue of being a criminal underserving of such a privilege. Alternatively, the opposing camp claim that voting is a basic right and explicitly state the counter-productivity of a ban that can hinder rehabilitation and contribute to higher reoffending rates. Furthermore, this discussion leads to a bigger question of what ideology a country’s criminal justice system should be based upon: Punitive or rehabilitative – or perhaps more generally retributive justice or restorative justice. The concept of justice in the field of political science continues to be fundamental both in theory and in practice. With theories from founding philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes and Rawls studied at length and empirical investigations into the relationship between justice and political, economic and social factors pursued.

One crucial point to be examined in more detail when addressing the question of whether prisoners should be allowed to exercise their right to political participation regards the importance of reducing reoffending and crime rates for a society. By preventing prisoners from having a stake in shaping a society that the majority will return to at some point only does more to alienate individuals and hinder their chances of rehabilitation. Accompanying growing concerns over the ineffectiveness of criminal justice systems around the world, the UK’s prison system continues to come under fire for high levels of overpopulation, unnecessary government spending and reoffending rates reaching record levels. Whilst recent figures show that a far more effective criminal justice system would be one that invests in community based and non-custodial sentencing, many advocate for more to be done in tacking the real root causes of crime, including structural inequality, poverty, unemployment, addiction, family breakdowns and abuse.

A particularly interesting case study of an alternative criminal justice system, with the lowest reoffending rate in Europe, is that of Batsoy Prison in Norway. Referred to as both theworld’s nicest prison and the “prison that works”, Batsoy hosts some of Norway’s most serious offenders and yet is ran like a small society where prisoners are not only given the vote but are treated with respect and contribute to community living on the island. Furthermore, such an alternative to conventional criminal justice systems around the world gains weight from empirical research in political science that suggests that harsher prison conditions are in fact more likely to lead to reoffending, rather than reduce it.

Whilst banning prisoners from voting is in part motivated by theories of deterrence and a desired need to deprive prisoners of a set of rights which constitute the unappealing consequences of committing a crime. It seriously underestimates the complex nature of criminal behaviour since it is highly unlikely that giving prisoners the vote would necessarily lead to more individuals engaging in crime because the criminal justice system seems more of a soft-touch.  Instead, research tells us that the more progressive a prison system can be – granting prisoners more rights as opposed to less – the more effective it is at keeping society safe. 

Follow Rebecca on Twitter: @rebeccacordell

Photo by: Nick Kenrick