A reply to Lord Adonis on sentencing, prisons and judges

I’ll be honest, out of all the ‘robust debates’ I’ve had online about criminal justice and sentencing of offenders, I would not have expected the most frustrating, fiery and ill-informed to be with someone advocating for less use of prison. It takes a special talent, I would suggest, to present an argument in such a way that you manage to alienate those who agree with your conclusion. Arise for your special badge, Lord Andrew Adonis, former Head of Policy at Number 10 Downing Street and erstwhile Transport Secretary.

The past few days have seen Lord Adonis stagger around Twitter swinging aimlessly at lawyers and judges like a punch-drunk case study on a late night police reality TV show. Every effort to gently usher him into the back of the van for some calm, reasonable, evidence-based discourse is met with another wild lunge towards camera – he has now blocked nearly every lawyer on Twitter – compounding the schadenfreude of rubbernecking passers-by. Unfortunately for Andrew, his identity is not pixellated to spare his embarrassment; rather emblazoned across each and every one of his (increasingly peculiar) assaults on the “cobwebbed judicial system”.

Let’s start with the common ground: Adonis believes that we have too many people in prison. I agree. As do, I would expect, most people who work in criminal justice. The statistics are trite, but no less shocking for that: England and Wales currently has around 85,500 people in prison. We imprison more people per capita than any other country in Western Europe (146 prisoners per 100,000 citizens). We have more prisoners serving indeterminate sentences – sentences for which there is no guaranteed release date – than the other 46 countries in the Council of Europe combined. Sixty-nine per cent of our prisons are overcrowded. Violence has soared by 68 per cent since 2006, with a 32% increase alone between 2015 and 2016 (a total of 25,000 assault incidents). Assaults on prison staff have risen by 40% in a decade. Deaths in custody have risen by 38% in between 2015 and 2016. The horror correlates with the £1bn cut to prison budgets by the last government and the 30% reduction in prison staff. And whatever else prison is supposedly achieving, stopping reoffending is not it: 44% of adults are reconvicted within one year of release. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 59%.

And numbers have increased steeply over the past two decades. The prison population rose by 90 per cent from 1990 to 2016. This is a recent, and peculiarly English-and-Welsh, problem.

For Adonis, the prescription is simple. The problem is the judges, whacking their gavels and sending people to prison for longer:

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Why are judges doing this? “Fear of tabloids”, Adonis posits:

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Extracts cannot really do justice to the tirade of tweets that Adonis launched towards the judiciary on this theme, and I’d recommend reading his Twitter timeline (with a glass of something stiff) to get the full flavour, but this is the nub:

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Now some of us hacks did indeed offer a defence of judges (who, by constitutional convention, are not permitted to speak out publicly to defend themselves). And we did so not because, as Adonis suggests, we have a desire to become a judge (I think I have successfully set fire to that particular lifeboat for myself through this blog and my forthcoming book), or because we think all judges are wonderful (SPOILER: They’re not – most are excellent, but some are significantly less so), but because we see criminals being sentenced every single day, and have a certain experience in this field. And I struggle to think of many cases I’ve been in, either prosecuting or defending, where I have suspected that a sentence has been inflated because of an eye on reporters in the public gallery.

As for Adonis’ experience, I did ask how many judges he had seen passing excessive sentences out of fear of tabloid retribution, but received the following, less-than-full response:

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The thing is, while to a layperson Adonis’ criticism would seem to make sense – judges are the ones passing these sentences, after all – a little knowledge of the law teaches that, to a large extent, judges’ hands are often tied, or at least lightly bound with handkerchiefs. That is because sentencing is not, as many might imagine from pop culture, an exercise in plucking a figure out of the air, whacking a (non-existent) gavel and intoning, “Take him down”. Crown Court judges are instead required to apply a horrendously complex morass of sentencing law and guidelines, which severely limit their room for manoeuvre. While they have discretion to pass a sentence that meets the justice of an individual case, it is a fallacy to presume that this discretion is at large.

Firstly, there are Sentencing Guidelines for most criminal offences, which judges are required by law to follow. We’ve looked at these guidelines in previous posts dealing with specific cases, but in short, they provide judges with a mixture of flow-charts and grids, setting out sentence “starting points” and “ranges” depending on which factors are present in a particular case. There is ultimately discretion built in as to where on the guidelines a judge pitches a case, but you can see for yourself that there is often not a great deal of wiggle room. Guidelines are set by the Sentencing Council, whose members are drawn from the judiciary, magistracy, legal practitioners, academics, police and the Director of Public Prosecutions. Guidelines are subject to public consultation, and the Council is accountable to the Ministry of Justice and has a statutory duty to consult with Parliament. The Sentencing Council is not, lest you be confused by Adonis’ complaints, a gaggle of judges operating under a cloak of secrecy.

Now I make clear – I do not agree with all of the guidelines. I think, for example, the way in which drugs are sentenced is largely ludicrous. A starting point of 4.5 years’ imprisonment for someone selling a few wraps of crack cocaine to fund their own habit is, with respect, the hallmark of a society that doesn’t have a clue what it is doing with drug policy, although the malaise for that lies with political culture at large, not the Sentencing Council. But even if you accepted Adonis’ view that the Council was a bunch of industry insiders fixing oppressively long sentences out of a desire to placate the red tops, it does not explain how, as Adonis postulates, it is fair to level cowardice charges at the several hundred other judges who are required day-to-day to follow the guidelines.

And, more importantly, judges must follow the law. Sentencing legislation is made by Parliament, which includes among its members Lord Adonis, as a member of the House of Lords. And judges have to follow the law set by Parliament. There is no discretion here. That is the essence of the rule of law and our basic constitutional settlement. I say this, because Adonis has suggested that judges should have “argued against” the government’s “policy” – by which he can only mean that they should have revolted and refused to follow the law that the government enjoined Parliament to make. So let’s get that sixth-form concept straight: judges have to follow the law set by Parliament.

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Now, as for what the law says, we can see that over the past two decades, politicians have scrambled to salute Michael Howard’s prison works squawk and increase the ways in which they can force judges to pass longer sentences. This included “mandatory minimum” sentences for repeat offenders – such as the 3-year minimum sentence for repeat burglars and the 7-year minimum for repeat drug traffickers – brought in by the New Labour government of which Adonis was a part. This same legislation – the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 – also introduced mandatory life sentences for offenders committing a second serious offence (a provision later abolished, re-imagined and re-enacted).  And there are many, many others.

But for now, I want to look briefly at one area to which Lord Adonis refers in the above tweet – indeterminate sentences.

In 2003, when Adonis was ensconced in the bosom of Downing Street as Head of the Policy Unit, New Labour brought forth the Criminal Justice Act 2003, a huge, unwieldy piece of legislation which did many things, including introducing the notion of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPPs). You may have heard of these – they have been in the news recently, as people given short “minimum terms” of as little as 10 months ended up serving over a decade under such sentences. The way that IPPs worked in theory was as follows: The judge would set a “minimum term”, after which the defendant would be eligible for release on licence, as long as he could satisfy the parole board that he was no longer dangerous. If he could’t satisfy the parole board, he would be detained until he could, potentially forever. As it happened, the government decided that they couldn’t afford to provide the rehabilitation courses that prisoners were required to pass in order to satisfy the parole board, meaning IPP prisoners were trapped in a Kafka-esque nightmare. For this reason, the Court of Appeal found that then-Justice Secretary Jack Straw had acted unlawfully in failing to provide the rehabilitation programmes, and in 2012 IPPs were repealed (although those passed before that date remained).

Now when IPPs were first introduced, if a defendant convicted of certain violent or sexual offences was found to be “dangerous” – the legal test for which was that he posed a significant risk of serious harm to the public – an IPP had to be passed. The judge had no discretion – the law was clear. If the offender met the risk threshold, the judge was not allowed to deal with him in any other way. This, unsurprisingly, led to an explosion in prison numbers – around 3,700 prisoners were serving IPPs by 2007.

This was the law until 2008. Parliament, realising its error, then amended the legislation to give judges discretion as to whether to impose IPPs where certain criteria were met. The word “must” was changed to “may”, and the threshold for imposing IPPs was heightened, to remove the scenario of tiny minimum terms (one as low as 28 days) resulting in years being spent behind bars. And, given discretion, judges stopped imprisoning as many people under IPPs.

Why do I focus on IPPs? It’s because they are the prime factor responsible for the increased use of prison. As the Parliamentary statistics that Adonis himself cites shows (thanks to @ProfChalmers), the length of sentence for all offenders has remained relatively stable across the 11 year period (2005 – 2016) except for a notable increase in indeterminate sentences.

That is not to say that all IPPs imposed were rightly so. Judges after 2008 did have discretion, and no doubt there will have been instances where it can be argued that an IPP was imposed where it need not have been (and many such cases will have been argued successfully before the Court of Appeal).

But what this incontrovertibly shows is that far from judges imposing increasingly lengthy sentences “out of fear of tabloids”, it was in fact politicians – Lord Adonis and his colleagues – forcing judges to impose certain types and lengths of sentence that was the greatest contributing factor to the increased use of prison. As for why politicians felt compelled to act in this way, you would have to ask them. But it may be there that “tabloid fear” finds its rightful resting place.

As for other factors of note that we can identify, we can see from the chart above an increase in determinate sentences of over 4 years. We can also see over the past 16 years a surge in prisoners convicted of violent and sexual offences:

Partly, this will be because of the increase in violent crime. Partly this will be attributable to the fact that the CPS are prosecuting more sex offences than ever, particularly allegations of historic (or “non-recent”) sexual abuse. Neither of these factors have anything to do with the judges. And, faced with serious sexual or violent offending, the guidelines and the legislation make clear what judges are required to do.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this is a silly argument, given the broad area of agreement between Lord Adonis and most lawyers. But I waste my Sunday afternoon to unpick Adonis’ complaints, even though I think we are on the same side, because there is no point embarking upon a remedy if you have mis-diagnosed the illness. And what is increasingly clear from Adonis’ tweets is that he lacks some fairly rudimentary understanding of the legal system.

For example, he suggests that Lady Hale, as the new President of the Supreme Court should “call out the trend to ever longer sentences”, apparently oblivious to how the Supreme Court operates.

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Sentencing policy has nothing to do with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s only role in criminal sentencing is to rule on the infinitesimal number of criminal sentence appeals that make it to the Supreme Court from the Court of Appeal. Why are so few criminal sentence cases heard at the Supreme Court? It’s because in order to appeal upwards from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court, either the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court has to certify that “a point of law of general public importance is involved in the decision”. This is a high threshold, and excludes the vast majority of sentence appeals (which tend to turn on their individual facts, rather than wider points of public importance). If you think that this threshold is too high, and that more criminal sentence cases should be capable of being litigated before the Supreme Court, you know who you can blame? Either the Parliament which enacted s.33 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968. Or the Parliament which created the Supreme Court and defined its jurisdiction under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Head of Policy Unit at Number 10 Downing Street when the Supreme Court was created in 2005? Andrew Adonis.

Nor, regrettably, can the Lord Chief Justice, who is head of the judiciary and president of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division), which hears sentence appeals from the Crown Court, decide of his own motion to “cut most sentences”. What on earth does this mean? That every sentence appeal he sits on must be allowed, irrespective of merits, in order to achieve an overall reduction? That the current legal test that the Court of Appeal applies, allowing appeals against sentence where sentences are “wrong in law or principle” or “manifestly excessive” be lowered to something less? If so, that is not within the gift of the Lord Chief Justice alone.

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I fear that Adonis has a rather childlike conception of the interaction between our various courts. If the Big Judge at the top says something, then all the other little judges will do it, seems to be the gist. It is alas not that simple. Sentences will not become shorter across the board simply because Lady Hale decrees, a propos of nothing, that it should be so. It is the same simplistic view of the world that claims, with a straight face, that the judges should, somehow, have stopped Adonis’ government from doing the reckless and damaging things it did:

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The solution, unfortunately for Lord Adonis, lies closer to home. Politicians, who are paid to make the arguments, need to change the tone of public debate on criminal sentencing. The corrosive tabloid culture that Adonis rightly decries is not going away. Parliamentarians need to be brave, and confront the toxic narrative of longer sentences and prison holiday camps that has informed Ministry of Justice policy for the past decade. Constituents should be told about the realities of prison and its proven limitations in reducing crime. The Dutch model that Adonis has held up as an example should be advocated by mainstream politicians on prime time interviews, not relegated to social media spats between ex-policy wonks and lawyers. The statutory manacles forcing judges to impose long sentences for certain offences should be re-examined and, where appropriate, released. The Justice Secretary could consider using s.128 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which would allow him to change the test for releasing the 4,000-odd remaining IPP prisoners who have served beyond their minimum terms. The plan to double the powers of magistrates – non-legally trained volunteers – to imprison people, allowing them to lock defendants up for a year for a single offence, could be snuffed out. If short prison sentences don’t work, why not consider a presumption against their use, as proposed by the Lib Dems at the last election? The increasingly popular trend for the Attorney General to “refer” (appeal) sentences as “unduly lenient” to the Court of Appeal – and to feed the prison works narrative by boasting about its successes – could be challenged. There has been a 108 per cent increase in AG References since 2010, no doubt attributable in part to media campaigns whipping up anger at perceived “soft sentences”, opinions often formed in wholesale ignorance of the facts.

There is a lot that could be considered as part of a remodelling of criminal sentencing. And no doubt judicial inclinations will form part of it. I don’t deny that some judges use prison too readily; of course they do. They are subject to the same human frailties and cognitive biases as the rest of us. But it is Adonis’ eagerness to pin the bulk of the blame on the judiciary, and the unsubstantiated assertion that they habitually falter out of genuflection to the tabloids, that I consider to be unfair. Because as we can see, that is not where the real problem lies.

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POSTSCRIPT

In case anyone saw, listed amongst his various grievances with the legal system, the following tweet by Lord Adonis, I should like to make two brief points.

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  1. The Law Commission is a statutory independent body that conducts detailed research and consultations and makes recommendations, usually accompanied by weighty published reports, for changes in the law “to ensure the law is as fair, modern, simple and as cost-effective as possible.” The decision on whether to implement a recommendation by the Law Commission is for Parliament alone. Parliament. Which includes Lord Adonis. If “nothing changes”, the fault is entirely with the politicians.
  2. But it’s not right to say that “nothing changes”. Two thirds of the Law Commission’s recommendations have been implemented. For a look at exactly what recommendations have been accepted, implemented and are pending, there is a handy list here, with which Lord Adonis may wish to familiarise himself. A subsequent apology to the Law Commission for his ill-informed and intemperate tweet as a senior Parliamentarian would, he might feel, be the very least he can do.
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12 thoughts on “A reply to Lord Adonis on sentencing, prisons and judges

  1. The fact the Sentencing Council has to persuade a Minister and Parliament puts policy at the mercy of the media. The current Guidelines are pitched too high with not enough flexibility. A 90% increase in prisoners since 1990 is telling. British politicians will only agree to something Mr Murdock or Dacre would approve of. They are spineless and close their eyes and ears to the wealth of professional opinion that see better ways.

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  2. Pingback: A reply to Lord Adonis on sentencing, prisons and judges – seftonblog

  3. Thanks for making the effort to write this up. It really needed to be said and you have put it so well. It is wrong that it takes an expert so much time to correct an ill-informed rant – but I am very glad you responded, and I am sure many others are too. Hopefully Lord Adonis will read and perhaps even learn

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  4. Gosh, he’s an… ahem. Let me put it this way, the opinions and arguments set out in these tweets from Lord Adonis are of a quality which would suggest, were we ignorant of their true author, that they emanated from an ignorant idiot with time on his hands.

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  5. Ohhh dear – so much work to do.

    The ‘sixth-form error’ Adonis makes let’s start there. I appreciate you think Dicey’s interpretation of the constitution is set in stone what surprises me is you never give any reason for that believe? I think you will struggle until you understand (as any sixth -former should) the basic rules of reasoning and arguing. Now if you take on board the fact that you also don’t actually know what the Rule of law is the dispute between you and Adonis makes sense? I am afraid any appeals to authority you wish to make have to be made with the relevant information – Adonis is right to call out the legal professions for its blind adherence to Dicey’s version of the Rule of law you just make a tit of yourself (apparently on behalf of the legal professions?) for misunderstanding his argument.

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    • I don’t understand the point this comment is trying to make. It would be helpful if Mr Burcher could set out and explain the two rival conceptions of the rule of law to which he appears to be referring (but which he does not explain).

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    • So, Julien, please share with us your superior understanding:
      • What in your view is the correct interpretation of the constitution?
      • What in your view is the Rule of Law?

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  6. Pingback: Lawyers pile in on Labour Lord Adonis over his swipe at judiciary - Legal Cheek

  7. In my view, what is worse than Adonis’ ignorance of the obligation of judges to apply the laws that Parliament passes, of the roles of the Sentencing Council and the Supreme Court, and of the work of the Law Commission, is his complete failure to acknowledge any responsibility on the part of the very government of which he was a member for the increased prison population. Such a lack of self-awareness makes him, in my view, unfit to sit in Parliament. Coupled with his intolerance of reasonable criticism or contrary views, as evidenced by his multiple blockings on Twitter, it seems he is more Narcissus than Adonis.

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  8. Superb analysis – many thanks for putting the time in to write it. It is a shame that Adonis’s incompetence and arrogance are such that it was necessary, though. If, as I fear, he is reflective of the calibre of modern politicians, no wonder the country is in a mess.

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  9. A very interesting article thank you. I must say I am stunned at the ignorance demonstrated by Adonis and saddened to think that is HE thinks like that, I wonder how many more politicians are guilty of the same lack of appreciation for the effect their decisions have.
    I was disappointed to see the usual dig at magistrates (but not surprised). Having sat as a magistrate for almost twenty years, I realise that it’s unwise to assume my own experiences in court are representative, but in that experience I can say, hand on heart, custody has always been the last resort. By far the majority of the defendants I have seen go to custody have done so after a number of failed attempts to address their offending behaviour in the community. I can also count on one hand (and still have fingers left) the number of defendants I have seen go to custody immediately and there have been none without proper consideration of the options. There have been very very few sentencing decisions that were so complex a professional legal mind was required in my opinion. Perhaps my experience is not representative.
    The other safeguard for inappropriate sentencing is the appeal process. You’re no doubt a lot happier that it is presided over by one your professional colleagues (and I think it’s a good process too). I have experienced sitting on appeals with a professional lawyer presiding (almost without exception they have been fair, knowledgeable and humane). There have been very few occasions where we did not reach consensus and none where the presiding judge was overruled by the magistrates (which could happen). Very few cases go to appeal from magistrates court as you know, even though there is an automatic right if appeal, and of those that do, many do not succeed. The ones I have seen succeed have rarely done so on a point of law.
    In my opinion your fears about magistrates increased powers are unjustified. This is especially so when magistrates already have the power to sentence to 12 months for multiple either-way matters, or up to two years in the Youth Courts.
    I think it would be great if non-custodial sentences had a better success rate – I don’t know any magistrates who relish the idea of sending someone to prison, we understand how destructive it can be, but sadly we’re often left deciding whether to repeat the same unsuccessful community disposals with some defendants, or give the community a break.
    Typed on tablet – apologies for any errors.

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