Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Do we really need yet another Crime Bill?

At yesterday’s hearing of the Justice Select Committee, the question of the climate of opinion on crime came up. I hazarded a view that public were much less concerned about crime than at times in the past and this provided an opportunity for constructive policymaking. It turned out I was right on the first point. I checked MORI’s polls to find that about one in seven think crime is the most important issue facing the country less than half the proportion who did so twenty years ago  before crime started to drop.

Today’s publication of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill shows I was sadly wrong on the second point. Any opportunity for a progressive turn in penal policy has been spurned by a ragbag of proposals which would restrict diversion from prosecution, toughen sentences for a selection of the most serious offenders   and make adult offenders pay for the costs of the court hearings which convict them. (It might have been worse. The Dutch Justice Minister is legislating for prisoners to pay for the costs of their jail time.)

There are some uncontroversial and welcome elements in the Bill , but there is a serious question about whether the proposals as a whole require yet another law and order statute before the last one has been enacted.  The Coalition partners used to mock Labour’s legislative hyperactivity in this area but have been unable to resist it themselves.

Chris Grayling is at least open about what he is doing- it’s so that “the law abiding majority know that we are making  ... changes”. Whether they are likely to be effective or even practical seems of less relevance despite his ludicrous assertion that these are the measures needed to keep us all safe.

His intentions are not quite so open about the secure colleges which will allegedly put education at the heart of youth custody.  They almost certainly mark the death knell of secure children’s homes- the small local units which provide high quality but expensive care for the most troubled young people. But we know almost nothing about these proposed new institutions other than that they’ll be larger and cheaper than what they replace. Defining institutions as educational is no guarantee of desirability let alone success as Approved Schools and Community Homes with Education proved in years gone by.

The questionable rationale for several of the measures and the uncertainty about their impact and costs suggest the bill should at the very least been published in draft and subjected to pre –legislative scrutiny. Judging by the rational and evidence based approach they showed in yesterday’s hearing, the Justice Committee would probably have made mincemeat of much of it.

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