08:45, January 05 326 0 theguardian.com

2018-01-05 08:45:04
Revenge has no place in the law – even for John Worboys

Retribution is poor justice. It is the short cut to lynch law and mob rule. Lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the key has long been the default mode of British attitudes to crime, spectacularly on display today in the worrying case of the serial sex attacker John Warboys.

No one has any idea on what basis he has been released from an indeterminate sentence after serving longer than his allotted eight-year minimum. Police and victims claim he may have carried out 100 other attacks. But despite what appears to have been shambolic police handling, all this was known at the time. The judge made a public decision. At law, the convicted man was clearly eligible for parole, and his custody has been judged “no longer necessary for the protection of the public”.

As in most cases of violent crime, media coverage concentrates on the horrific experience of victims, as if justice were delegated to them. This is understandable, and great and justified strides have been made towards sympathy and compensation for victims, including victim statements in court. But the natural inclination of victims to severity of punishment, especially in Britain’s high-profile adversarial court system, risks injustice.

In the Warboys case, the parole board must have known it was on a hiding to nothing, and should surely have prepared the ground for its decision. Personal privacy is not good enough. We do not know what treatment Warboys has received – sex attackers are notoriously hard to “cure” – or on what basis experts think his risk has been eliminated. We know he will be closely monitored, but recent news of inadequacies in privatised parole do not inspire confidence. The reason the prison population is again surging appears to be a loss of faith by judges in community service orders and related supervision.

None of this answers the vexed question of what prison is for or its relation to “punishment in the community”. There is a total confusion of motives: of revenge, retaliation, prevention, rehabilitation, cure and overall benefit to society. The grim truth is that Britons love prisons more than any developed country other than America. Politicians cannot build enough of them. The prison population, including of pensioners, is rising inexorably and “cures” are ever more elusive. Prison should not be the answer to all but the most violent of crimes.

Reason, not retribution, should be the guide to punishment. No one knows why Warboys is going free, but the attendant agitation will do nothing to boost faith in the system, or the image of British justice.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist