David Howarth on the criminal justice systemFebruary 13, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, New Labour, Prison Reform | 3 Comments
Give this man a medal:
There is a crisis in the criminal justice system of staggering proportions. The prison population is at a record high, and is eating up £ billions in public expenditure. 70% of prisoners suffer from two or more recognised mental illnesses. Vast numbers are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Prisoners are shunted around the country at an alarming rate in a desperate attempt to find places. Constructive activities for prisoners are becoming increasingly difficult to complete. Thousands of prisoners are threatened with the Catch 22 that they have been sentenced to an indeterminate sentence so that they can only obtain release if they complete certain courses, but no such courses exist at the prisons where they find themselves. Meanwhile, community sentences are underfunded and non-custodial sentences we know are effective in reducing re-offending, such as restorative justice, are left on the shelf.
We need to stick to what works to reduce reoffending, and, within what works, we need to concentrate effort on offenders who are likely to commit the most new crimes and the most serious new crimes. The government and the Tories are obsessed with placating the Daily Mail with talk of punishment and deterrence, but that approach, because it fails to concentrate on what really works to reduce reoffending, effectively causes more crime. If existing resources were moved from programmes that do not work – such as short-term prison sentences that have vast failure rates – to programmes that do, such as restorative justice and drug and alcohol treatment, the crime rate would be lower. By refusing to follow such an approach, and instead indulging their more atavistic tendencies, both Labour and the Tories are permitting more crime than should be happening. That is why they are the pro-crime parties.
There are a number of things about this piece which make me happy. In 2005, Howarth was the recipient of my first ever vote, and whilst it was nice enough just to see the back of the rather useless Anne Campbell, that’s since been superceded by an admiration for how well he articulates the causes of civil liberties and social justice.
Second, what’s striking about the section above is not just that he understands the myriad wrongs in the criminal justice system, but that he’s able to frame them within a ‘tough on crime’ narrative which contends that Labour is actually contributing to crime, not tackling it. Whilst he only briefly alludes to the solutions, the suggestion that his Ministry of Justice would be more nuanced, pragmatic and results-based is more than enough to earn him a spot in my fantasy cabinet.
Lastly, it’s heartening to see him talking about this issue within the broader context of civil liberties and constitutional reform. One of the frustrations I have with the ‘civil liberties movement’ is that its focus is overwhelmingly on the restrictions Labour has imposed (or would like to impose) on those whom the law presumes to be innocent (42 day detention, DNA databases, ID cards etc etc). Those policies obviously need smart & vigorous opposition, but it often seems like there’s then little room for discussion about safeguarding the rights of people the law knows to be guilty. I’ve always thought that people who argue for reform of our criminal justice system were natural bedfellows for civil libertarians, but that’s not a sense I get when traipsing around the blogosphere. In this piece, Howarth ties the two together, and for that he deserves great credit.