Yesterday morning, newly-appointed Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told Radio 4’s Today programme of his pleasure that the Prime Minister is taking an interest in the criminal justice system. And certainly, after three years of wilful abandonment under Theresa May, I would in principle gladly welcome some Downing Street-level political attention on the ruinous state of our criminal courts.
When this attention is coupled with more money for the criminal justice system, this sounds very much like the sort of thing those of us working within have been crying out for. So surely we should all join hands with Mr Buckland and celebrate that in Boris Johnson we finally have a leader taking criminal justice seriously?
Don’t believe a word of it. The entire project is a con.
Starting with the “new money”. Mr Johnson has announced that 20,000 new police officers will be recruited over the next three years. This is vital, certainly, but falls far short of what is required, given that that figure barely replaces the number of officers cut since 2010. Meanwhile, not only is crime increasing, but investigations are becoming ever-more complex, with digital evidence sucking resources and quadrupling the effort that would have been required a decade ago.
There’s £85m for the Crown Prosecution Service, which sounds like a healthy sum, until you realise that it’s a fixed payment over two years, and that the CPS budget for 2018/19 was a quarter of a billion pounds less in real terms than in 2009/10. The CPS has lost a quarter of its staff and a third of its lawyers since 2010. Two tranches of £42.5m will not begin to fix the problems that plague prosecutions up and down the country.
There’s a promise of 10,000 new prison places, when the previous promise of 10,000 places in 2015 fell short by 6,000, and another 9,000 places alone are required simply to address the present, longstanding overcrowding. There is £100m for technology to aid prison security, but no mention at all of the extra prison staff needed to safely manage the new offenders, given that even after a recruitment drive in 2017, numbers are 15 per cent down since 2010. There has been a huge drain of experience since 2010, as the most experienced officers were among the first to go when the government decided to slash prison staff by over a quarter, at a time when the prison population has climbed.
But the problem extends far beyond inadequate promises to redress chronic underfunding. The propaganda accompanying these announcements betrays not only the Prime Minister’s trademark opportunism and dearth of intellectual rigour but the sticky, putrid tar clogging the heart of the Johnson Crime Agenda.
Announcing his plans in a series of weekend puffs in tame newspapers, Boris Johnson declared, “Left wingers will howl. But it’s time to make criminals afraid – not the public.” Declaring his mission to ensure that criminals “get the sentence they deserve,” Johnson continued a theme begun in his Telegraph columns on the campaign trail, when he railed against “early release” from prison and inadequate prison sentences being passed. The solution to our criminal woes, the subtext screams, is to lock up more people for longer.
And let’s make no mistake, punishment is a legitimate and important part of criminal sentencing. It is one of the five purposes of sentencing listed in statute, alongside the reduction of crime (including by deterrence), reform and rehabilitation, protection of the public and making reparations to victims. Few if anybody involved in criminal justice would disagree with the notion that people who commit crime should be punished in a way that reflects their culpability and the harm they have caused, and that for some people, notably the most serious violent offenders, lengthy prison sentences are inevitable.
However, the notion that longer prison sentences by themselves make any of us any safer is a fantasy. The notion in particular that knife crime will be solved if we simply lock up young men for years on end is a hoax. The public may well be protected from that particular individual for the duration of their incarceration, but the idea underpinning this rotten philosophy – that longer sentences have a deterrent effect on crime – has been shown to be bogus. What does act as a deterrent is not severity of sentence, but certainty. The likelihood of being caught and dealt with swiftly, in other words.
But crime reduction and prevention is not achieved solely by deterrence. Rehabilitation is a vital part of protecting the public. This is why, when dealing with complex, multi-causal offending intractably rooted in social and cultural problems, the courts may take the view that more can be done to protect the public by keeping a young man on the cusp of custody out of the prison warehouse estate, and offering focussed intervention in the community. Sending someone to prison usually means ripping them away from all and any stabilising factors they may have. They lose their job, their social housing and their relationship, and exit prison with no support network other than the new friends they’ve made inside. This is why the evidence suggests that reoffending rates are lower when offenders are kept in the community.
But the evidence is of no concern to the Prime Minister. This is why he is forced into infantile ad hominems as a pre-emptive rebuttal against the people who have read and studied the evidence, and might be minded to offer some as a counter to his claims that our system is soft.
We already have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe. Prison sentences have on average got longer year-on-year. We have more prisoners detained on indefinite and life sentences than all the other countries in the Council of Europe.
The notion that our courts routinely hand out “soft sentences” is simply not true. When we do see “soft justice” stories in the headlines, they will either be an aberration, usually corrected on appeal, or they will be the product of inaccurate or dishonest reporting, removing context or omitting facts.
Which brings us to Johnson’s public statements. Because at the centre of his musings on criminal justice is a rich stuffing of bullshit. He has lied and lied and lied. He lied when he claimed that “a convicted rapist out on early release” had raped again (the man in question was neither a convicted rapist nor out on early release). He lied when he suggested that the notion of allowing some prisoners to be released on temporary licence was “criminally stupid” (the government’s own evidence shows that reintegrating prisoners into the community in this way cuts reoffending). When he told the Mail this weekend that there are “thousands of “super prolifics” – criminals with more than 50 convictions to their name – who are being spared jail altogether”, he did not tell you that one of the reasons they were spared jail might be that they were being sentenced for non-imprisonable offences. He is lying to you when he tells you that the solution to crime is More Police, More Prisons.
He is lying so that he can turn the volume up to 11 on his remix of “Prison Works” to ensure the oldies at the back of the conference hall can hear in the run-up to the inevitable autumn general election.
And while Mr Johnson is lying to you, the rest of the criminal justice system rots.
Courts are being closed down and sold off all over the country. Half of all magistrates’ courts have been closed, meaning that defendants, victims and witnesses are forced to travel for hours on ineffective public transport to their “local” court.
Of those courts remaining standing, many are unfit for purpose. Decaying, crumbling buildings with no working lifts, holes in the roofs, sewage leaking into public areas, no air conditioning in summer and no heating in winter. In some, the public cannot even get a glass of water.
Of the courts that remain unsold, all are now run at artificially low capacity due to Ministry of Justice restrictions on “court sitting days”. We have, in many large city Crown Courts, the farce of full-time, salaried judges being forced to sit at home taking “reading days” – their perfectly serviceable courtrooms sitting locked and empty – while trials are fixed for Summer 2020 due to an alleged “lack of court time”.
We still have the abominable system of “floating trials” and “warned lists” – where defendants, witnesses and lawyers are expected to give up days or weeks of their lives just sitting around at court on the off-chance that a courtroom suddenly becomes free to take their trial. When, inevitably, no courtroom becomes free (because the MoJ won’t pay for the sitting day, ibid), their case is adjourned for months, and the cycle begins again.
The one thing that does act as a deterrent to criminals – certainty – is being eroded by ensuring that justice is doled out literally years after the event, because the government will not pay for the courts to process cases clogging the pipeline.
Meanwhile legal aid is being stripped away from citizens, forcing them to self-represent in cases in which their liberty is on the line.
This is why I am angry. Not because I’m a “lefty” inherently resistant to Boris Johnson’s white hot public service reforms. I’m angry because as a prosecutor I am still having to sit down with crying witnesses week after week and explain that their torment is being prolonged for another six months because the government refuses to pay to keep courtrooms open. I’m angry because the Innocence Tax – the policy that forces the wrongly accused to pay privately for their legal representation and then denies them their costs, bankrupting them, when they are acquitted – is not even in the political peripheral vision. I’m angry because our Prime Minister is a man who looks at the record rates of death, violence, suicide, overcrowding and self-harm in our prisons and whose first question is, “How do we get more people in there?”. I’m angry because the notion that you “crack down on crime” by chucking a few more police officers onto the streets and shoving more and more people into our death-riven prisons is a con. It is a con to victims of crime, and it is a con to you, the public. I’m angry because we have the indignity of a dishonest, cowardly and exploitative Prime Minister fiddling with his Party’s g-spot while the criminal justice system burns.
Don’t fall for his con trick.