Boris Johnson has responded to the Streatham attack by vowing to crackdown on convicted terrorists, introducing retrospective legislation to end the automatic early release of such prisoners at the halfway stage. But this is the wrong approach. Instead, the fault lies within a dysfunctional and ineffective probation service that attaches insufficient weight to protecting the public. And the probation service is under the Government’s direct control.
Justice secretary Robert Buckland says that the proposed law will not increase the ‘penalty’ element of the sentence, only the administration. But if that’s true, there is no need for a change in the law. He can alter the administration immediately.
It is certainly ridiculous to release dangerous offenders automatically after serving only half their sentence, but licence conditions already provide grounds for preventing their early release. At present half the sentence is served in prison and half under licence, supervised by the probation service. According to the Government’s website:
‘The aim of a period on licence is to protect the public, to prevent re-offending, and to secure the successful reintegration of the individual into the community.’
It adds that licence conditions ‘are not a form of punishment and must be proportionate, reasonable and necessary’.
The Streatham attacker was deemed to be so dangerous that a team of armed police officers were assigned to follow him. If so, then why was he released?
Every released offender is subject to a standard set of licence conditions, including that of ‘good behaviour’ and a guarantee ‘not to behave in a way which undermines the purpose of the licence period’. If he was dangerous enough to justify continuous supervision by armed officers what other evidence was required?
This is surely where the fault lies. Unlike the police, the probation service is full of people whose instinct can be to treat offenders as victims of society. They are sometimes reluctant to hold offenders personally responsible for their actions, preferring theories that blame outside forces, such as inequality. Public protection is one of their objectives, but in practice it is not always high on the list of priorities. Of course, sentences should be increased and automatic early release ended, but above all we need to shake up the probation service.
Buckland plans to extend early release from the half-way stage to two-thirds and to require the parole board to approve all early releases. But by proposing new legislation altering existing sentences, he is in danger of breaching one of the most fundamental principles of our law (although this has been disputed by Richard Ekins). We have long held that one of the hallmarks of a free society is that there should be no punishment for actions that were not crimes at the time they were carried out. Closely related to this is the view that sentences should not be increased once they have been passed. To be free under the rule of law means we must know how – and when – the state can use its coercive powers against us.
One of the deficiencies of our political culture is that governments try to solve problems by enacting laws. But instead of blaming early release on the laws passed by the previous Labour administration, the Government should start running its departments better.
David Green is Director of Civitas