How long until my conviction is spent?

Evidence on prisoner voting rights for Equalities and Human Rights Committee


Howard League Scotland welcomes the opportunity to participate in the roundtable discussion about prisoner voting rights held by the Equalities and Human Rights Committee (Thursday 7 September 2017).

Howard League Scotland believes that a blanket ban on convicted prisoners voting is wrong: the right to vote should only be removed with more specific justification, if ever. We have argued against the blanket ban on both occasions relevant legislation has come before the Scottish Parliament.

We wish to highlight the following points to the Committee:

  • We believe a custodial sentence by itself sets too low a threshold for the loss of such an important right as the right to vote. It relies on imprisonment being seen as automatic “civic death” and sits at odds with the political commitment to the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders.
  • Scotland has one the highest rates of imprisonment in western Europe. Applying a  blanket ban therefore sets a lower threshold for losing the vote here than it would in almost all other western European countries. As it is, the most recent review carried out by the UK Cabinet Office revealed that of the 47 Council of Europe countries only five European countries enforce a blanket ban: Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Russia and the UK[1].
  • The blanket ban is not based on a transparent, considered debate about the nature and limits of democracy and the position of prisoners. It dates only from 1969, when it was introduced with minimal scrutiny. There was no legal ban in Scotland on prisoners voting between 1949 and 1969, and before that only one on those convicted of the most serious imprisonable crimes (“outlaws”). It reflects the earlier relationship between voting, and the ownership and confiscation of property.
  • The cross-party joint committee of the UK Houses of Parliament concluded in 2013 that all prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less should be entitled to vote[2]. This has yet to be taken forward at Westminster.
  • Removing the vote from those serving shorter sentences has particularly arbitrary effects: actual vote loss depends on a combination of the date of sentencing diet, how long has previously been spent on remand, early release and timing of elections, rather than the sentence or offence committed. Also, cases attracting a short-term prison sentence and those receiving a community penalty may be very similar.
  • The Scotland Act compels the Scottish Parliament to ensure that all legislation must be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Scottish Government has previously rejected amendments to two bills that would have extended voting rights to some convicted prisoners, most recently on the basis of lack of competence. However, with competence extended, any future legislation relating to the franchise in the Scottish Parliament which seeks to continue a blanket ban on voting by convicted prisoners would be in breach of the ECHR and therefore its competence open to challenge.

Relevant links:

Howard League Scotland’s submission on the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Bill:

Howard League Scotland’s submission on the Scottish elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Bill:


Howard League Scotland response to Scottish Government's 2017/18 Programme for Government

We welcome the Scottish Government’s proposal to extend the presumption against short periods of imprisonment to sentences of 12 months or less.

Hand in hand with this proposal, there must now be a significant shift of resources from custody to community-based responses to offending. Sentencers, victims and the wider public need to have confidence that there are credible, properly resourced community-based disposals for those who might otherwise receive a short custodial sentence.

We recognise that electronic monitoring has the potential to add an element of control into community supervision that other measures do not have, and that this may help to reduce the use of imprisonment and the disruptive effects of a custodial sentence, such as loss of housing, employment and the erosion of family relationships. We support the use of electronic monitoring provided that it is integrated with other forms of support and that there is a clear penal rationale for its use.

We also welcome the Government’s intention to advance legislation to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 8 to 12 years old.

Reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 is also welcome and long overdue. Enabling those with convictions to become rehabilitated and reintegrated into society is in everyone’s interests: it improves public safety and reduces reoffending. We look forward to seeing the detail of the bill when it is presented to Parliament.

Reviewing progress on female imprisonment in Scotland

(Press release issued by the Scottish Working Group on Women Offenders)


Campaigners are holding an event at the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 15 June 2017 to review what progress there has been five years on from the publication of the report of the Commission on Women Offenders.

The event, organised by the Scottish Working Group on Women’s Offending (SWGWO), will bring together those who wish to see a reduction in the number of women in prison in Scotland. There will be presentations by Professor Nancy Loucks, Chief Executive of Families Outside, and Dr Margaret Malloch, Reader in Criminology at the University of Stirling. There will also be contributions from women with lived experience of the criminal justice system.

Anne Pinkman, SWGWO Convenor, said:

“There was a great deal of excitement about Dame Elish Angiolini’s report when it was published in April 2012. Five years on, we felt the time was right to take stock and review what progress there has been since then.

“There are fewer women in prison in Scotland today than there were when the report was published. And whilst there have been a number of very welcome developments since the report was published, we are still far from achieving many of the aspirations contained in the report.

“We were disappointed to learn recently that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice will no longer provide an annual update to Parliament on progress in the implementation of the recommendations from the 2012 report. We are concerned that there is a risk that political momentum to drive forward change is slipping away.

“We hope that there will be a lively debate on Thursday evening about how we can all work together to ensure that the ambitions of Dame Elish’s report are achieved in full.”

Lisa Mackenzie, Policy and Public Affairs Adviser to Howard League Scotland, added:

“When the report was published, Dame Elish pointed out that there had been numerous previous reports on the subject of female offending and imprisonment across the UK. Next year sees the twentieth anniversary of the publication of ‘A Safer Way’, a report on female imprisonment in Scotland by the Social Work Services and Prisons Inspectorates for Scotland. That report advocated limiting the female prison population at Cornton Vale to 100 or less by the end of the year 2000.

“We are still a long way from that goal. For example, there are still too many women in prison on remand. Most women who are sent to prison on remand do not go on to receive a custodial sentence and yet even a short spell of period on remand can have catastrophic consequences: the loss of a tenancy, employment and custody of their children.

“Funding for community-based services for women is still often precarious, with providers enjoying little certainty about their resourcing from year to year. Cuts to mainstream services after nine years of the council tax freeze are also likely to have had an impact on the ability of women with complex needs to access the help and support they need.

“The challenge to us all is to find ways of ensuring that what progress there has been to reduce female imprisonment in Scotland does not grind to a halt. There is much more to do.”

Notes to editors:

1.     The report of the Commission on Women Offenders was published on 17 April 2012 and contained 37 recommendations, including the closure of HMP/YOI Cornton Vale.

2.     The Scottish Working Group on Women’s Offending (SWGWO) was established in 2011. Its membership includes individuals and organisations concerned with all aspects of women’s offending in Scotland (

3.     The 1998 report of the Social Work Services and Prisons Inspectorates for Scotland ‘A Safer Way’ proposed limiting the female prison population at Cornton Vale “to 100 or less on a daily basis by the end of the year 2000” (p.53).

4.     On 31 March 2017, there were 357 women in prison in Scotland and 26 on Home Detention Curfew. Of the 357 women in prison, 90 (25%) were there on remand. During 2011/12, the average daily female prison population was 468 (source:

5.     In June 2015, SWGWO wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice setting out a strategy for reducing the size of the female prison population in Scotland:


We welcome this opportunity to comment on the draft Scottish Independence Referendum Bill[1]. Our comments are about the proposal (as set out in Section 3 of the draft Bill) to ban convicted prisoners from taking part in a future referendum on Scottish independence.

Summary of our position

  • This Bill represents the third opportunity for the Scottish Parliament to legislate on the franchise. Amendments to both the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Act 2013 and the Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Act 2015 that would have extended voting rights to some convicted prisoners were rejected by the Scottish Government.
  • Once again, instead of simply reproducing the Westminster blanket ban on convicted prisoners’ voting rights, there is an opportunity for the Scottish Parliament to put down a marker about the value placed on democratic rights and social justice in Scotland.
  • We wish to highlight that almost all other European democracies recognise that voting is too hard-won a fundamental right to be lost automatically on imprisonment.
  • We welcome the Scottish Government’s recognition that too many people are sent to prison in Scotland. We also welcome recent statements by the First Minister and other members of the Cabinet about the importance of human rights and their commitment to international human rights standards and protocols, including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
  • We therefore ask the Scottish Government why it believes that imprisonment on one particular date should be enough in all cases to prevent citizens from taking part in a vote which will determine the constitutional future of their country. We would welcome a broad debate on whether to follow the model of many other developed democracies, and allow some or all convicted prisoners to vote.


Why voting matters

“The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts.”

The constitutional court of South Africa[2] in a decision on prisoners’ voting rights (1999)

"The creation of a universal franchise is one of the great political achievements of the past 150 years: we should never take it for granted.  How much care we exercise when we decide to remove voting rights is a token not just of how we value fellow citizens, but of how much we value voting itself."

In many countries, the vote is seen as an inalienable right that cannot be taken away as a punishment.  We think that is a powerful position which better represents the values of a modern democracy than the current position in the UK, which has its roots in the mid-nineteenth century relationship between voting and property ownership, and the forfeiture of property for certain crimes. 

We would like the Scottish Government to give a fuller explanation of its decision to follow the UK blanket ban on voting by convicted prisoners

The European Context

The UK is unusual in Europe in implementing a blanket ban on voting by all convicted prisoners.  On the best available recent research (Briefing Note SN/PC/01764, from the House of Commons Library, February 2015[3]):

  • At least eighteen European nations, including Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, have no form of electoral ban for imprisoned offenders. Norway has provision for removing voting rights from certain offenders, but this appears never to have been used.
  • In other countries electoral disqualification depends on the crime committed or the length of the sentence. In France, certain crimes are identified which carry automatic forfeiture of political rights and Germany’s ban extends only to prisoners whose crimes target the integrity of the state or the democratic order, such as political insurgents. 
  • Among the Council of Europe countries, those with which the UK keeps company in not allowing any convicted prisoners the right to vote are Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Russia: in at least two of these, consideration is being given to change.

The ban is often defended on the basis that those sentenced to prison have broken their contract with society, in a substantially different way from the many other offenders who are given non-custodial sentences or fines, and that this must mean that all convicted prisoners should lose their vote while they are held in prison.  When so many of our fellow democracies reject that logic, we should stop and consider it again.

Even at Westminster, a cross-party Joint Committee of both Houses recommended in December 2013[4] that all prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less should be entitled to vote in all UK parliamentary, local and European elections; and moreover that prisoners should be entitled to apply, up to 6 months before their scheduled release date, to be registered to vote in the constituency into which they are due to be released. Although no proposals have yet been brought forward.

The international position underlines that respecting the rights of victims, as we should, does not require the removal of the vote.  We are not aware of any evidence that it functions as a deterrent. Indeed, we find the idea that prison should automatically carry a penalty of “civic death” at odds with the agendas for rehabilitation and reintegration that have been a welcome part of Scottish political debate in recent years.   We believe effective rehabilitation is central to addressing the needs of victims of crime.

The way we use prisons

As a society, we expect the criminal justice system to punish offenders appropriately and reduce the risk of reoffending. Prisons will always be an essential part of that system.

Decisions about imprisonment are often not clear-cut, however: there is not a straightforward divide between the types of offences that attract imprisonment and those that do not. As we noted in our original submission on the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Bill, in 2011-12, 28 per cent of shoplifting convictions, 54 per cent of housebreaking convictions, and 61 per cent of convictions for serious assault and attempted murder ended in a custodial sentence (Source: Criminal Proceedings in Scotland 2011-12[5]).  The remaining cases were dealt with using non-custodial measures. Using their discretion, sentencers take many issues into account, including the welfare of the offender him or herself and what particular community sentencing options are available in the local area. 

Scotland's rate of imprisonment is one of the highest in Western Europe and over twice as high as the prison populations of the Nordic countries. The prison population rose by 17% between 2004/05 and 2013/14 (Source: Prison statistics and population projections Scotland: 2013-2014[6]). We applaud the commitment of the Scottish Government to reducing the use of imprisonment and support the view of the Cabinet Secretary for Justice delivering the Apex Scotland Annual Lecture in September 2015[7]:

“I truly believe that there is no good reason why Scotland should have such a high prison population… my vision for penal reform in Scotland is one which I believe reflects the values of a modern and progressive nation, in which prison - and in particular short-term imprisonment - is used less frequently as a disposal”

Inquiries into prisons and offending commissioned by the Scottish Government in recent years tell a consistent story about the over-use of imprisonment in Scotland, in particular for those from the most deprived and vulnerable backgrounds.  This is not a new issue: similar points have been made by earlier inquiries.

From Scotland’s Choice: The Report of the Scottish Prisons Commission (2008)[8] established by the Scottish Government and chaired by the Rt Hon Henry McLeish [our emphasis]:

Our review shows that we are not using prisons mainly to tackle serious crime ….    [the] breakdown of data shows we use prison for a very different purpose. Instead of investing in a system that can secure stronger, safer communities, a series of problematic and largely unnecessary uses of prison are revealed….[including]

  • The short sentences problem - people who are more troubling than dangerous: Eighty-three percent of prison sentences in 2005/06 were for 6 months or less (and 57% of all prison sentences were for 90 days or less)…
  • The warehousing problem - a place to hold the damaged and traumatised: Ninety percent of women in prison have drug and alcohol problems, and 75% have a history of abuse and major health problems. The picture for male offenders and young people is similar….

Research has demonstrated and defence lawyers are well aware that similar cases are sentenced very differently in different courts - and even by different judges in the same courts

We calculate that it would be possible to reduce the prison population by as many as three to four thousand offenders who have not committed serious crimes and do not constitute a danger to the public…

From the Report of the Commission on Women Offenders (2012)[9] established by the Scottish Government and chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini [our emphasis]:

There are women who should be in prison to protect the public and to mark the seriousness of their crimes. Even for these women, opportunities for rehabilitation should be available to reduce the likelihood they will reoffend and help reintegrate them back into the community…. For other women who have been repeatedly convicted of committing lower level offences, their offending is often the result of significant underlying issues, such as drug or alcohol addiction and mental health problems, that could be better addressed in the community….  75 per cent of custodial sentences imposed on women are for periods of six months or less…. … further analysis is required to gather the information which will help to explain the reasoning behind sentencers’ decisions.

Female prisoners have higher lifetime incidences of trauma, including severe and repeated physical and sexual victimisation, than either male prisoners or women in the general population.

The evidence is compelling that being sentenced to imprisonment alone should not be regarded as providing a strong enough justification for removing a person’s right to vote and that the current ban impacts disproportionately on the most deprived and vulnerable.  As in other developed European democracies, if we are to remove the vote at all, we should set a higher bar.

Voting and rehabilitation

We welcomed the 2013 inquiry[10] by the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee into purposeful activity in prisons and in particular the former Cabinet Secretary for Justice’s statement to the Committee that:

"...the Scottish Government believes that offenders should be sent to prison as punishment, but that our prisons should also be about the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders back into society as contributing citizens."

We do not want to suggest that voting by itself will make a large difference but we do believe that participation in democratic decision-making could contribute to the process of rehabilitation and send a strong message to prisoners that they remain part of wider society and have a stake in its future.

Arbitrary effects

Including those on short sentences in the ban on voting will create some unusually acute anomalies in the specific case of a referendum.

  • Prisoners on short sentences are regularly released soon after conviction, due to the time they have already spent on remand.  They suffer little or no impact on their voting rights.  Others, where the courts have been content to grant bail, serve their whole sentence as convicted prisoners. Of two people convicted side by side and given the same sentence in the run-up to September 2014, the one granted bail could lose their only opportunity to vote on the issue of independence, while the other does not.
  • In 2013-14, 9,362 people received a custodial sentence of less than 6 months[11]. On an average day only 419 of these were actually in prison serving their sentence, due to: the rapid turn-over of these prisoners; time already spent on remand; and early release (including on Home Detention Curfew; we understand prisoners on early release would be eligible to vote).   On this pattern, there will be a significant element of arbitrary disenfranchisement among those serving short sentences during the year surrounding the referendum.

Practical issues

Arrangements have to be made for prisoners on remand by electoral administrators and the Scottish Prison Service.  Remand prisoners already make up around one-fifth of the prison population and can vote by post.  At first sight, there is not an obvious reason why, for example, prisoners on short-term sentences at least could not be treated in the same way. 

At a minimum, the practicalities of extending the vote to those on short-term sentences, which are defined in law as being less than 4 years, should be tested with the organisations involved and it should not simply be assumed that it would be unachievable. 

On an average day in 2013-14, in addition to the 419 serving sentences of less than 6 months, 1715 prisoners were serving sentences from 6 months up to less than two years, and 1077 were serving sentences between two years and less than four years. (Source: Prison statistics and population projections Scotland: 2013-14[12])

There is also a case for seeking to include those nearing the end of a sentence and being prepared for release, although we realise that they may be harder to identify in law and would bring into the debate prisoners who have committed more serious crimes.

The relevance of ECHR

We recognise that ECHR compliance is a more significant matter for Scottish legislation than UK legislation, because of the limitations on legislative competence in section 29(2)(d) of the Scotland Act 1998, and that the Scottish Government has previously stated that it does not believe that the ECHR applies to voting in referendums.  While recognising that it will be important for the government and the Parliament to satisfy themselves on the legal issues, we want to make this as a moral case, not a legal one.


We hope that the Scottish Government will reconsider its proposed ban on voting by convicted prisoners in a future independence referendum.

We take encouragement from the words of the First Minister[13], at an event on 23 September 2015, in response to a question from Howard League Scotland about prisoner voting rights:

"As we get more responsibility for the franchise more generally of course we will have to consider the issue of prisoner voting. We haven't got any proposals to put forward at this stage but that is something that we will continue to consider.

"Clearly it's incumbent on all governments not just to talk the language of human rights, but not just on this issue but on all issues to make sure that that's reflected in our decision-making as well."

There is an opportunity with this Bill for Scotland to strike a distinctive course which brings us closer to the practice in other developed European democracies, rather than automatically following the model set by Westminster. We believe the question of voting rights for prisoners in a referendum is more, rather than less, acute than in general elections.

We hope that, as part of any consideration of this legislation, this issue would be fully debated, in a way which reflects positively on Scotland as a country which values democratic rights and social justice.

Howard League Scotland

January 2017