Leading article: The case for democracy behind bars

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The Independent Online

The 140-year blanket disenfranchisement of British prisoners is about to expire. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2004 that Britain's exclusion of prison inmates from the democratic process was unlawful. And the Coalition is understood to be on the verge of acquiescing in that ruling.

A backlash from the populist press, the perennial cheerleader for Britain's punitive culture, is inevitable. Right wing Conservative backbenchers are also likely to create a fuss. And the verbal attacks on the Strasbourg-based ECHR have already begun. But lifting the ban is the right decision. And the previous Labour government should have enacted the reform when the ECHR delivered its original verdict six years ago rather than looking for a way around it.

There are three primary objectives for incarceration in a democracy: to safeguard the public, to rehabilitate the offender and to punish the criminal. The question is whether stripping a convict of their right to vote is a legitimate aspect of the punishment function. The answer is that it is not.

The right to vote is one of the pillars on which the superstructure of our democracy rests. All citizens should enjoy it. It is a strange sort of democracy in which civic rights are contingent on good behaviour. A supplementary, but also compelling, argument for reform outlined by the Howard League for Penal Reform is that barring prisoners from voting conflicts with the goal of rehabilitating them. One of the objectives of prison should be to re-socialise inmates. This is made more difficult while they lose the right to one of the fundamental aspects of civic participation upon passing through the prison gates.

It has been suggested that the Government might try to maintain the ban for those guilty of particularly notorious crimes, such as serial killers and child murderers. But if the principle that prisoners should be able to vote is right, it makes no sense to create special arrangements for public hate figures.

The Government appears to be moving in the right direction on prison voting. It would be unfortunate if it tarnished its record of good behaviour so close to the day of release.