Diane Abbott: “I will give the justice system the change it needs”

Labour leadership candidate and Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott outlines her views on the criminal justice system, exclusively for Left Foot Forward.

Our guest writer is Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and a candidate for the Labour Party leadership

It was thrilling to see such a large and enthusiastic turnout at the recent criminal justice hustings at Islington Town Hall, hosted by the Howard League for Penal Reform and Tribune magazine. Be in no doubt, this election is about change, and when it comes to criminal justice, we must use this opportunity to signal an end to the days of pandering to Daily Mail editorials instead of standing up for our values.

ID cards, child detention centres and Section 44 are just a few of the ugly blotches on our Party’s record. I certainly welcome the fact the other leadership candidates are distancing themselves from New Labour’s ‘hang-em, flog-em, DayGlo-bib-em’ approach to crime, justice and civil liberties.

Although as I pointed out during the hustings, I can only assume that my fellow contenders were off sick whenever criminal justice came up in Cabinet during Labour’s 13 years in Government.

Jack Straw is right about one important thing: crime did fall by 43 per cent between 1997 and 2010. As an MP, I have been proud to lead successful campaigns for longer sentences for carrying a gun, for a complete ban on imitation weapons, and I was delighted to see that last Thursday, my campaign to make eBay rethink new relaxed restrictions on the type of knives that it sells, made a real difference.

Amidst the chilling prospect a potential 60,000 police officer and civilian posts being axed by 2015, Britain must not lose sight of the magnitude of issues around criminal justice. I have every sympathy with victims of crime because I live in Hackney, which a high crime area – but under my leadership, Labour’s focus on crime will be rooted in our values.

As leader, I will make a start by protecting frontline police from budget cuts; creating a civil rights division to strive for fairness within our justice system; and by launching a complete review of stop-and-search laws.

Whilst we must oppose Lib-Con privatisation of the justice system, we also need big changes. Reform of the system, at this point, is not enough – we need a whole new outlook. The criminal justice system now costs almost £20 billion a year, making it one of the most expensive criminal justice systems in the world. There is a higher percentage of people in prison here than in any other country in western Europe and re-offending rates are also still too high.

Looking back at some missed opportunities, a huge prison-building programme took priority over the Corston Report’s recommendations for different and non-custodial approaches for women, for example. Recent research suggests that over 4,274 women and girls languish in British jails and that more than half have been victims of domestic violence, a third have experienced sexual abuse, and 25 per cent have been in care as children.

The first job I had when I finished university was a graduate traineeship with the Home Office working on prisons policy and so on the campaign trail, I am enjoying listening to Labour members’ ideas on justice and community. Throughout the campaign, many of the people I have spoken to have said that they would, in fact, prefer to see punishment that allows the offender to repair some of the damage done, receive treatment for any addiction and re-learn some responsibility, particularly for non-violent offences.

Under my leadership, there will indeed be an emphasis on early intervention, diversion, preventative support and rehabilitation; reducing the use of short sentences where possible whilst replacing them with community sentencing; and increasing use of restorative justice, forcing criminals to confront their behaviour.

It cannot be right that, at present, just over 2,000 children and young people are in jail in England and Wales, and it is tragic that three out of four young offenders are reconvicted within a year of completing their sentence. I will give the justice system the change it needs, starting by ensuring that all staff working with children and young people in the justice system have received training in children and young people’s development, and by creating a care pathway that includes a full range of mental health services, with transitional arrangements for young people leaving prison.

My constituents in Hackney, like many people across Britain, understand what the right-wing media will never understand: Labour needs a new national approach to crime, which makes the important link to inequality, social care, health, economics, housing and education.

The best solutions to crime are when communities come together to solve it, and I will lead Labour in that new direction by: launching the construction of a new generation of quality council homes; increasing early intervention in schools with classroom-based education programmes; investing in drug rehabilitation programmes in the community; improving access to parenting classes; and also piloting police cadet schemes in local schools.

To Labour members I say this, plainly and simply – this election must be about vision, not division. Hope, not fear. A new direction, not business as usual. And all of this is just a few first steps towards that radical change that we need.

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