14:16, January 05 211 0 theguardian.com

2018-01-05 14:16:03
The Guardian view on John Worboys’ release: verdict on a system in crisis

The release of the “black cab” rapist John Worboys, a man who drugged, sexually assaulted and raped perhaps as many as 200 women is incomprehensible. It is shocking. It is one more unbelievable development in a case already marked out by historic levels of cruel incompetence.

At every turn, decisions have been taken that might have been choreographed to demean his victims and diminish every woman’s faith in the system. First there was the litany of errors by the Metropolitan police investigation. The willingness to disbelieve his accusers, and to believe him was accompanied by an incompetence that rendered evidence inadmissible and left obvious connections unexamined. Dozens of women may have been assaulted or raped because the police missed chances to stop him. This disaster was compounded by the most callous disregard for his victims; an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission reported officers lying to and laughing at victims. Some of them were on a squad set up to create a safe environment for the reporting of rape. The IPCC recommended no disciplinary action.

The court process equally beggars belief. The average sentence for a convicted rapist in 2009, when Worboys was sentenced at Croydon crown court, was eight years. And that was what he got. But there was nothing average about John Worboys. Posing as a trustworthy older man with all the confidence lent by being at the wheel of a London black cab, he appeared to take pity on women going home on their own late at night. Then he lied to them, and drugged them, and assaulted or raped them. By the time he was convicted, the police said almost a hundred women had made allegations against him. Yet he was charged and convicted of just one rape and 14 sexual assaults.

The judge at the trial, Mr Justice Penry-Davey, sentenced Worboys to an indeterminate sentence for the protection of the public. That meant that he had to serve a minimum of eight years and then, as the judge said in court, he would be assessed by the parole board to ensure he no longer posed a threat to women. More than 180 other similar sentences were handed down that year. The attorney general could have appealed. She did not. More charges could have been brought after the initial convictions. They were not. No explanation has been given. There is just a grubby row about who took the decision.

Now comes the parole board decision to release him on licence. That means that three experienced people, which included one woman, are satisfied on the basis of expert evidence that he will not be a threat to women again. Yet their reasons remain confidential, and some of the victims – who are entitled to submit a statement to the board explaining how they feel about the impending release – were not even told that parole was imminent. Rightly, the chair of the board, Nick Hardwick, has apologised to them. That is not enough.

Outrage, fury, despair – these cannot bring change on their own. But they can help beat down the brambles in its path. The question now is how to reinvent a system so catastrophically flawed. Failure of process is failure of justice, whatever the charge. In December, two separate rape cases collapsed because the police had failed to disclose evidence that might have helped the defence. That was taken as licence to reignite that easy, sleazy, familiar claim: “women lie.”

Some of the factors that may have played a role in this case have already changed. Indeterminate sentences, where prisoners have no idea how long they must serve beyond the set tariff, are no longer used; in a lecture in November, Professor Hardwick underlined his eagerness to release offenders who are still imprisoned because of them. Other factors may change soon: he also campaigns for greater transparency in the parole process along the lines of the Canadian model. Yet other factors seem unchangeable. The number of reported rapes has doubled, the number of convictions has not. Victims still fear being disbelieved. They still feel shame for a crime perpetrated against them. They fear being judged. They fear the degradation of a court case. John Worboys’ release tells them they are right to be afraid.