Plenty of hot air was expended in the House of Commons yesterday over the "bunch of unelected judges in Strasbourg" who ruled it was illegal for the British Parliament to maintain its 140-year-old practice of depriving convicted criminals of the right to vote. Let's leave aside the question of whether judges are best elected, or even that of whether it would be sensible to secede from a European Court set up after the war at the behest of Winston Churchill, to ensure that human rights should never again be as at risk in Europe as they had been from Nazi Germany.
The key issue is whether it is right for criminals to be subjected to what the Victorians called the "civic death" of disenfranchisement in addition to deprivation of liberty. Populist bombast comes easily to the lips here. But it is one thing to be outraged by crime – and indignant on behalf of its victims – and quite another to endorse a status quo which is bad for both prisoners and wider society.
Almost two-thirds of all prisoners reoffend within two years of release. Improved methods of rehabilitation are urgently needed inside our prisons. Some are practical. But shifts are also required in our attitudes, so that prisoners are treated less as passive objects, than as people who can author their own reform. A system which places them outside full citizenship is not part of that civilising process.
To see the reductio ad absurdum of the current approach, look to those 10 American states which strip prisoners of the vote for life, even after release. In Florida nearly a third of black men now cannot vote. Anything which further isolates prisoners already on the margins of society – and encourages their sense of alienation from the community to which they will return when released – is a bad thing.
That is true for all of us, not just prisoners. People do not forfeit their human rights when they enter prison. They retain the right to food and shelter, to respect, to not being subjected to torture. Some rights, like that to family life, are necessarily curtailed by prison but not extinguished. The same is true of our right to participate in decisions affecting our lives. That is key to the principle of universal suffrage which is at the heart of our democracy.