There was some relief yesterday when the new Prime Minister placed the Justice brief in the experienced and relatively liberal hands of Robert Buckland. Yes, as Solicitor General he had appeared to relish appealing unduly lenient sentences, but his policy instincts are not necessarily punitive. As a back bencher, he spent a good deal of time on the Justice Committee and was a member of the Independent Parliamentarians’ Inquiry into the Youth Court which backed a more problem-solving approach to children who offend.
More importantly perhaps, Buckland's admittedly brief ministerial exposure to the prison and probation services will have alerted him to their current fragility- forcefully confirmed in the case of prisons by the latest set of performance ratings in which a record 14% establishments are of serious concern. Buckland’s predecessor as Justice Secretary was perhaps suffering a touch of gate fever himself when he informed the Justice Committee nine days ago that that he felt “we have made good progress in addressing some of the challenges that prisons face right now - on safety, security, decency, and the estate in general”. That assessment rather flies in the face of the evidence.
Today as expected, PM Johnson told MPs that he had “tasked officials to draw up proposals to ensure that in future those found guilty of the most serious sexual and violent offences are required to serve a custodial sentence that truly reflects the severity of their offence and policy measures that will see a reduction in the number of prolific offenders”. Whatever else they might achieve, these priorities for government will almost certainly place yet more pressure on the prison service. So too of course will pumping funds into the police.
Average sentence lengths for sexual and violent offences have risen sharply since 2010- from 49 to 61 months for sex and 20.8 to 23.5 months for violence. England and Wales have more life sentence prisoners than the rest of Europe, with average tariffs almost twice as high as they were in 2003. So, what’s Johnson's thinking?
Tories have long been uncomfortable with automatic release of most determinate sentenced offenders at the half way point. Back in 2008 they pledged to “introduce honesty in sentencing so courts set a minimum and a maximum period, with no possibility of parole until the minimum has been served." Grayling and Gove mulled an earned release system. Maybe we are in for one or both of these options. Expect too, further extensions to the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme.
Johnson will be alive to the electoral appeal of these kind of changes. His views may also have been shaped by his partner Carrie Symond's awful experience- as a 19 year old- as one of the many victims of John Worboys. She certainly felt that “the justice system and the Parole Board let us down", helping to fund raise for the Judicial Review of the latter's decision that Worboys should be freed. Can we expect further reform of the Board?
On prolific offenders, the 2015 Tory manifesto promised “a new semi-custodial sentence …allowing for a short, sharp spell in custody to change behaviour”. Briefings afterwards revealed that so called flash incarceration will mean “persistent vandals, shoplifters and drug addicts will spend two nights in a police cell under Conservative plans”. Despite it's impracticality , is this "swift and certain punishment" back on the cards? Or can we hope for something more measured building on the public health approach?
Think tanks Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Justice are each likely to claim the role of midwives for any policy of “swift and certain" with Crest Advisory currently working on proposals. The first two as least have extolled the virtues of Hope Probation, a tough love programme piloted in Hawaii which involves probation supervision accompanied by frequent drug testing. Failures lead to immediate but short terms of detention. Research has found impressive outcomes in terms of reduced drug use and jail time. Because of its success, the short terms of detention imposed on programme failures require fewer prison beds in Hawaii than do the longer sentences served by those who fail normal probation supervision.
Despite the research, I have been a bit sceptical about the wisdom of importing the approach in the UK. Some observers at least, while acknowledging the impact that Hope has had in Hawaii, question whether that is enough to justify its “correctional popularity”. Frank Cullen and colleagues at the University of Cincinnati point to “uncritical acceptance and importation of the programme to the U.S. mainland” and argue that several uncertainties about the programme may potentially compromise its effectiveness in other jurisdictions, thus offering false hope as a new paradigm.
Whatever happens it’s hard to see David Gauke’s consultation paper on limiting short prison sentences seeing the light of day. In a worst case, we'll see more short sentences for petty prolific offenders and more long ones for serious offences. Let's hope Buckland can find a way to prevent that outcome.