David Blackburn

Redwood is right – prison sentencing may need reform out of fiscal necessity

Redwood is right – prison sentencing may need reform out of fiscal necessity
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John Redwood is one of the most original thinkers on the right; and tasked with finding solutions to cut expenditure, he has concluded that too many petty thieves and fraudsters are imprisoned. Redwood argues:

‘The first is all those people who commit crimes by taking money or property that does not belong to them, ranging from the common thief to the fraudster. Surely it would be much better to prove to them that crime does not pay. They should be made to pay the costs of the police and judicial system in handling and prosecuting their case. They should make full restitution to any third party affected by their actions, including an element of compensation.

The second is the wide range of new crimes this government has dreamed up to pursue its political correctness and power of the state agenda. Many of these should never have attracted a possible prison sentence in the first place. Judicious changes to the penalty clauses – or outright repeal – would cut down the numbers of such offences.’

It remains to be seen if the police can prevent these crimes effectively without the potential penalty of incarceration. Prison is a more effective deterrent than work.  Criminals may repeatedly offend without being apprehended and then simply cough-up with the proceeds of their crimes if and when they are caught. In principle though, Redwood is entirely right. Many people go to prison who are not a threat to the general public’s physical safety. Can Britain afford to keep them there at taxpayers’ expense? Should they be there at all?

Another area of the criminal justice system where current sentencing may not always be necessary is, perverse though it sounds, murder. Five years ago, Lord Woolf reviewed the mandatory life sentence for murder. Degrees of murder were at issue and the reform argument followed, ‘What is currently termed ‘murder’ includes offences that are not uniformly heinous. Why should a doctor who delivers a fatal injection to a patient hours from death, or the perpetrator of a domestic crime of a passion, receive the same sentence as a serial killer or a gang member? Does a mandatory sentence not oversimplify justice, as well as place an unnecessary burden on prisons? Should the enraged lover and the doctor be imprisoned in the first place?’ Lord Woolf’s recommendations were never implemented.

These are by no means easy questions, and I do not pretend to have an answer. However, in an era of overstretched prisons and public penury, sentencing is the obvious part of the criminal justice system to reform.