Tabloid rage wins the sentencing argument

No one comes out of the sentencing u-turn saga in a particularly good light; all the political parties should be wary of letting tabloid outrage dictate policy.

UK prison service

Andrew Neilson is the Assistant Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform

The government’s response to its sentencing green paper paints a mixed picture. All the attention has been on the u-turn on a 50 per cent sentencing discount but beyond this, much of the original proposals have survived intact.

The Howard League also welcomes a review seeking to abolish the disastrous indeterminate sentence for public protection as it has proved unworkable and difficult for the public to understand.

The new proposals on knife possession are more worrying and it is disappointing to see mandatory sentences being introduced that compromise judicial discretion. It is also unclear what the need for a mandatory sentence is, as there is already a downward trend in convictions.

Nonetheless, given around 5,000 people are convicted of carrying knives each quarter, what constitutes using a knife to threaten will have to be very tightly defined to avoid prison numbers spiralling out of control. This is precisely why the coalition backtracked on Conservative plans in opposition for mandatory sentences for all those caught carrying knives.

The sentencing discount was always a pretty blunt tool for reform, as it would affect everyone in the system regardless of what offences they have committed. In hindsight the secretary of State for Justice would have been wiser to listen to groups such as the Howard League who advocated focusing initial reforms on reducing the use of ineffective short sentences, or building on the previous government’s agenda in diverting women away from the prison system.

Yet David Cameron can hardly claim Ken Clarke’s original proposals had not been vetted by Downing Street. The spectacle of the prime minister pirouetting roughshod over the Ministry of Justice plans has not been edifying.

No discussion of yesterday’s events would be complete without saying something of the Labour response, however. It is not only the government that has been found guilty of u-turning on criminal justice policy.

Ed Milliband campaigned for the Labour leadership on the basis that he wanted to create political space for penal reform, and he vowed he would not outflank Ken Clarke from the right. Yet ever since he called on the Justice secretary to resign after misspeaking on the issue of rape, Milliband and his Justice spokesman Sadiq Khan have shamelessly ridden the tabloid bandwagon attacking Clarke and his proposals.

It was particularly disappointing to see Khan, quoted yesterday, going beyond the sentencing discount issue to attack entirely sensible proposals to reduce the unnecessary use of remand in cases where sentences are unlikely to end up in custody.

No one comes out of this sorry saga in a particularly good light and all the political parties should be wary of letting tabloid outrage dictate their policies.

Abandoning the sentencing discount proposal has left the Ministry of Justice with a severe headache in trying to balance its books. If further cuts are made to the probation service then prison numbers will inevitably rise. Sentencers, without community options available in their areas, will rely on short prison sentences, and an overstretched probation service will set more people up to fail and breach their community orders.

The criminal justice system will be plunged into further meltdown. The headache will return with ever greater ferocity, and who knows what political complexion the government will have when the next prisons crisis strikes?

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