Need for Pause in UK Justice Reforms

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British Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled a new “tough but intelligent” criminal justice policy this week in a major speech delivered after a visit to Wormwood Scrubs prison in West London. Having replaced a  socially liberal Justice Minister with more of a hardliner last month,   Cameron was expected to usher in a harsher set of policies , partly to satisfy the more punitive members of his own Conservative party and also to seek to restore some credibility with the wider electorate following a series of government blunders .

In fact the new approach appears more balanced than many progressives had feared. Whether constrained by his liberal party coalition partners, lack of funds or personal ideology,  it  was somewhat reassuring to hear a Prime Minister say that   he was not going to try and out-bid any other politician on toughness   and that prevention was better than cure. The long promised “rehabilitation revolution” in prisons is still to be pursued and there were positive words about the need to stick with people after release from prison and give them proper support, “because it’s not outer space we’re releasing these people into – it’s our streets, our towns, among our families and our children.”

Despite this , Cameron could not resist telling his audience that  on the punishment of criminals he did not want  there to be any doubt that he  will be tougher (although tougher than what he did not say)  He wants  to see people who ruin the lives of others – rapists, murderers, muggers – behind bars, and kept there for a long time and  said he has  always supported the principle of the life sentence, trumpeting the new  two strikes and you’re out mandatory life sentences for serious sexual and violent crimes. Two days  after his speech , Cameron told Parliament he had no intention of complying with the European Court judgement requiring the UK to amend its blanket ban on prisoners voting.

What changes in policy and practice will this rather incoherent rhetoric   produce? On custodial places, Cameron promised that for anyone sentenced to a spell in prison, there will be space. Dismissing the idea of arbitrary targets for the prison population, Cameron argued that the number of people behind bars will not be about bunks available but about how many people have committed serious crimes. Writing a seemingly open cheque for prison expansion is something he may come to regret.

Legislation is underway to make community sentences more demanding, which could increase their credibility as alternatives to short jail terms with courts and the public but could equally soak up resources and increase rates of non compliance .

But perhaps the biggest impact on criminal justice may come from the government’s plans to change the way services are organised and funded. The Probation service – barely mentioned in the speech – is in effect being dismantled with plans to scatter its functions to a patchwork of private companies and charities. Rehabilitation services are to be subject to a payment by results system that has yet to show any results itself in any area of social provision.  Heroic assumptions are being made about the savings which will be made by  greater private sector involvement  .

These changes are similar to those inflicted on the National Health Service in controversial legislation last year. In the case of the NHS the Coalition Partners the Liberal Democrats called for a pause so that an independent and expert assessment could be undertaken of the impact of the policy. As a result important safeguards were introduced to limit the scope of the market.

In view of the disparity between the scale of the changes being proposed for criminal justice and the strength of the evidence for them, the case for a similar pause and assessment is a strong one. Without it there is a risk that whatever the rhetoric,  enormous damage will be done to the day to day functioning of criminal justice in England and Wales.




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