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Home > Politics

Justice: You're Just So Distant These Days

19 May 2006

This week Tony Blair called the justice system 'the public service most distant from what reasonable people want'. Which is a little odd, because right now surely 'the public service most distant from what reasonable people want' is his own government. That or The Department for Being Compulsorily Anally Ravaged by Noel Edmonds in a Gas Mask. We'd hate to call the toss.

The criminal justice system (as opposed to just 'crime') has been increasingly discussed in recent years. The question is whether we desperately need reform, or whether Blair has found what he believes is a populist issue to provide a distraction from Iraq and the various scandals plaguing New Labour.

The justice system certainly provokes strong reactions from the public. But the problem that dogs any intelligent discussion of the justice system is that most of us don't know very much about it, because we're not policemen, lawyers or habitual criminals. Instead we tend to base our opinions on what we read in the papers or see on TV, and the media, on the whole, tends to focus on cases guaranteed to provoke outrage: the rapist who attacks again a month after being released, the 12-year-old with 50 convictions, etc. The result is that many people genuinely believe that the justice system is a criminal's playground; a place where you never get anything more than a slap on the wrist, and, if you have the sheer bad luck to actually be convicted, just get a couple of months in a cell with Sky TV, a Toshiba laptop and a Playstation.

This obviously isn't true, but although any discussion of the justice system invariably gets hijacked by people who believe everything that Richard Littlejohn writes, some of the public concerns about the criminal justice system do seem to hold water. The main ones appear to be:

1) Sentencing is too lenient

Examples of ludicrously lenient sentencing are easy enough to find, and you don't have to be a member of the hanging-and-flogging brigade to consider some sentences obscenely soft. In 2003, for example, a five-year prison sentence was given to a man who raped a 13-month-old baby. The same judge sentenced a man to less than four years in prison for raping his stepdaughter more than 100 times - although it should be noted that the Court of Appeal increased both sentences.

These are (one would hope) isolated incidents, but there are other aspects of sentencing that are open to question. For example, the average sentence for rape is now seven years and four months. This is a long time to be in prison, even allowing for early release, but you've got to question whether it really squares with the massive trauma suffered by the victim, who can be affected for the rest of their life.

On a lighter note, another troubling aspect of sentencing for the casual observer is best described as 'The Streetcrime UK Disbelief Effect'. If, like us, you have a certain weakness for trashy crime docusoaps like 'Streetcrime UK', 'Drunk and Dangerous', 'Car Wars', etc., you'll probably have ghoulishly enjoyed watching a variety of offences take place, only to shake your head in disbelief when you discover the actual sentences meted out. 'What?' you say. 'He got a suspended sentence? But we've just watched him repeatedly kicking a blameless stranger in the head!'

The worrying thing is that this occurs almost *every* time we watch such programmes. Ghouls we may be, but even this unscientific analysis suggests there are serious questions to be asked about sentencing.

2) The system favours the criminal, not the victim

Again, this argument is undermined by people who claim that justice is dispensed by some limp-wristed Liberal 'elite' who are wealthy enough to live in monied areas where they can ignore the realities of crime.

However, there does appear to be cause for concern, with a worrying number of cases where criminals or suspected criminals are able to abuse the system. Only this week a story encapsulated the difficulties facing a rights-based legal system. A police officer arrested a teenager who allegedly threatened to stab a headmaster, after being called to a school in Preston where, not for the first time, a gang of teenagers had been causing trouble. The officer chased and caught one of the teenagers, who on previous occasions had managed to run off before the police arrived. In the ensuing struggle, the teenager banged his head, requiring three stitches. He put in a complaint, and the officer, who has an outstanding record, was detained for five hours of questioning and is now the subject of an internal investigation.

On the one hand, complaints against the police do have to be investigated. But at the same time most of us have encountered the kind of arsey troublemaker who will exploit any opportunity to wriggle out of their wrongdoing, or just create hassle for the sake of it. 'I wasn't abusing the pensioner! I wasn't doing nuffink! In fact, I've just remembered, he hit me! Yeah, wiv his Zimmer frame! That's assault!', etc.

3) Frequently, the system is not protecting the public

There's certainly been enough evidence of this recently with the release of illegal immigrants who should have been considered for deportation after committing crimes. It's not so much the deportation issue, it's the fact that most of us probably assumed there was *some* sort of system in place to make sure you don't just release a sex offender and then let them disappear without any knowledge of where they are or what they're doing.

More broadly, what's been emerging over the years is a picture of a justice system that identifies dangerous individuals but seems powerless to stop them re-offending. A large proportion of offenders in general re-offend for obvious reasons, but it's more disturbing when there is a strong chance of someone committing extremely serious crimes. Ian Huntley is a case in point, or go back a few years to the case of Roy Whiting. In 1995 Whiting was sentenced to four years in prison for the sexual assault of a small girl. After serving just over two years, he was released and went on to murder Sarah Payne.

Errors occur, and no system is flawless. But when you take into account the high likelihood of offenders re-offending (especially sex offenders), and the wearying number of instances when they do, then you have to ask whether the justice system is simply failing to protect the public.


These are all valid issues, but it's still incredibly difficult to get a balanced view of the justice system, short of devoting the rest of your life to becoming a sociology professor with an interest in criminology. We tried, for example, to get some figures about average sentences for different types of offence. Home Office figures about average lengths of sentence for various offences were no doubt accurate, but useless in terms of getting a picture of the sentences criminals are actually serving. Conspicuously absent from the figures was any explanation of the distribution of the sentences: are some people getting extremely hefty sentences for offences while others are getting laughably short ones, or are sentences for the same offence broadly similar? Perhaps more importantly, what is the amount of prison time actually served?

However, one person who has managed to construct a meaningful picture of the criminal justice system is Guardian journalist Nick Davies, who spent a year researching a series of special reports. They're not just essential reading if you're interested in the whole issue, but also extremely readable.

Davies identifies the administrative failings of the system, and how these translate into an almost laughable inability to convict a habitual criminal.

An article about prison reveals the deeper societal problems that create our prison population.

And, depressingly, we get an overview of the political failings that have left the justice system little more than a holding pen for most criminals.

Davies' articles confirm some popular conceptions of the justice system, while refuting others (such as the myth of 'luxury' prisons). A series of articles, however good, can't answer all our questions about the justice system, but this is the nearest we've seen to an accurate picture of it.

And the articles overwhelmingly make the case that reform of the system is needed, which is what Tony Blair is promising. For once we're not going to be too cynical, because Blair has identified a genuine problem where serious reform could make a huge difference to people's lives - both victims and potential victims of crime, and those criminals who need rehabilitation. But whether it will be genuine reform or just more rushed 'initiatives' is another matter. Let's hope it's the former, and in a year's time we're not listening to Blair proposing reform of something else to distract attention from the failed reform of the criminal justice system.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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