Ian Acheson

In praise of Boris Johnson’s justice shake-up

In praise of Boris Johnson's justice shake-up
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It ought to be a good day at the office (at last!) for Robert Buckland, the Secretary of State who has outraged the legal profession. He spent most of last weekend on the media rack defending the government’s position that it might break international law to defy an agreement with the EU that it had negotiated. 

Today is much more straightforward. His ‘get tough’ sentencing white paper contains a myriad of proposals that will resonate with ordinary people baffled by a justice system ever more remote from the idea of public protection and punishment, lost in abstractions, passing sentences that bear little relationship to the gravity of the crime.

So while it’s bad news for the criminal justice blob — that stale and increasingly disconnected coalition of woke academics, lawyers, quangos and public sector princelings who control the levers of policy and power — it’s also bad news for violent criminals, terrorists, rapists and those who attack uniformed public servants. All of these types of offenders are going to spend significantly more time in prison. As are those who have been radicalised by terrorism inside. 

Automatic release from prison, with no regard to risk or dangerousness, is finally over. That's right, the same bizarre process that threw terrorists Usman Khan and Sudesh Amman onto the streets to commit murder and mayhem either side of Christmas last year. Offenders over 18 who commit some of the most heinous offences will be eligible for detention for the whole of their lives if a judge believes it necessary.

The practical implications for these tough new proposals are immense. Holding the most serious and violent offenders in custody for longer will please victims who have been victimised again by a weak justice system. But public protection isn’t simply about banging people up. Our prisons are overloaded with people who simply shouldn’t be there. The scale overwhelms threadbare staff who have to respond to huge levels of distress, despair, violence and a rampant drugs economy driven by organised crime, a captive market and huge rewards. 

If we want longer sentences to have a long term societal impact then they must be places where there is the safety, time, encouragement and expertise to help offenders rescue their potential and stop making more victims. 

I have no time for the ‘cult of vulnerability’ beloved of prisoner advocates bent on outsourcing personal responsibility for criminal behaviour. But I can tell you from experience that your humanity is severely tested when cutting down someone hanging in a cell who was failed by a system that couldn't cope with rocketing levels of mental illness. We can’t even stop people killing themselves at near-record rates in our prisons right now, still less fix the problems that put them there.

This is why the second theme of this white paper is equally important. There is a real attempt to reform community punishments, to keep more offenders out of custody where bad people are currently made worse. I imagine these proposals have been motivated by Buckland’s personal experience as a part-time judge, no doubt exasperated by defendants who continually reappear in front of him, failed by the community punishment system. Those whose offending is motivated by drug addiction or whose criminality is a function of mental disorder really should not be in prison at all. Better solutions for them, either in the community or secure treatment centres, would free up a huge amount of space and time in our disordered jails to deal with society's violent predators. 

The indications are that Buckland wants to reintroduce the idea of ‘problem-solving courts.’ Good move. These were first mooted by a predecessor, Michael Gove after a visit to the US where the concept of judges deeply and personally invested in an offenders rehabilitation post-conviction is unremarkable and yet produces remarkable results. As I recall, an indignant judiciary put the kibosh on that idea. I hope it’s here to stay now. Finally, stable, long-term employment for ex-prisoners has a big impact on reducing reoffending and turns takers into givers. There are welcome proposals to reduce the amount of time after conviction non-dangerous offenders are required to disclose details to prospective employers. Those who have been inside are some of the most loyal and productive employees around. Making it easier for them to get and keep a job is one of the most important ways we have to stop the dismal, hugely wasteful cycle of offending and reoffending that blights lives. If anything this area needs even more radical action.

These proposals will no doubt be a welcome distraction from the government’s current woes but they should not be merely dismissed as such. The criminal justice commentariat is not over-endowed with insight or humility. Its leading lights are already on the airwaves and social media decrying the decisive shift towards a more punitive response to serious, violent and terrorist crime. In this respect, they are entirely out of step with sentiment outside the senior common room echo chamber. 

The concepts of punishment and public protection have become embarrassing relatives in the growing family of principles governing sentencing policy. To paraphrase my good friend and former prison governor, Professor John Podmore, clear the prison system of people who are a nuisance and make room to properly deal with the people we are scared of. That’s smart justice, right there.