13:53, December 16 258 0 theguardian.com

2019-12-16 13:53:04
The Guardian view on sentencing: longer prison terms are a kneejerk response

The sentencing of criminals should serve several purposes, but primarily these might be retribution, deterrence, prevention and rehabilitation. Courts and prisons are not most voters’ top priority – as can be seen from the 40% cuts to justice budgets since 2010, among the highest of any government department. But they are understood to be necessary, along with the police, to ensure that laws are enforced.

Two high-profile recent failures have thrown an unforgiving light on sentencing and the wider justice system of which it is part. While there are lessons to be learned from both cases, so far the reaction has been disappointingly kneejerk. The promise expected in this week’s Queen’s speech, to increase the minimum portion of a jail sentence that some violent offenders must serve, from a half to two-thirds, may turn out to be popular. It is not a serious effort to confront the crisis engulfing our prisons, probation service and courts.

Usman Khan, who murdered two people before being killed by police at London Bridge last month, was freed from prison on licence in 2018 after serving a sentence for terror offences committed in 2012. His actions caused a huge row in the middle of the election campaign, with Boris Johnson shamelessly attempting to pin the blame for his release on Labour in the face of protests from one of the victim’s parents.

While it is easy to point to “softness” as a contributory factor in such disasters, the complexity resulting from frequent policy changes was also responsible for a situation that saw convicted terrorists released, for a period, without going before a parole board (it is disputed whether or not a parole hearing was among the court of appeal’s recommendations when Khan’s original sentence was reduced).

Joseph McCann, who was sentenced to 33 life sentences last week for a horrific series of rapes and kidnappings committed against 11 women and children earlier this year, should have been recalled to prison when he was convicted of burglary in 2017, under the terms of a previous sentence. That this did not happen has been blamed on probation officers. But while no system is perfect, and service providers must be accountable, it should also be recognised that this mistake took place in the context of cuts, a botched partial privatisation, and workloads found by inspectors to be “unmanageable”.

The starting point for an intelligent discussion of these cases, and others in which former prisoners reoffend, must be to recognise that the issues are complicated. Unless everyone who commits a crime is to be locked up for ever, there is no alternative but to try to balance risks. Imprisonment for public protection sentences, such as Khan’s, were abolished after the European court of human rights declared them unlawful in light of prisoners being denied the rehabilitation courses they needed (and jails becoming overcrowded as a result).

This is not an argument against long sentences where they are warranted, or against paying attention to public opinion. The justice system itself should be more outward-facing (without cameras in courts, the public is shielded from the destructive effects of cuts, unlike in hospitals or schools). Simpler judgments, with copies given to victims as well as defendants, would help. But if politicians want the system to command public confidence, they need to set an example. Mr Johnson and his home secretary, Priti Patel, should give up their authoritarian signalling, and foolish threats to “terrify criminals”, in favour of substantive change.