Thursday, 27 October 2011

Erasing the stain on our justice system

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is all over the media touting his sentencing reforms. The big headline he's looking for is: mandatory life for second serious crime!

So if you almost kill someone twice you go to prison for "life". Not life, just "life" which is a bit shorter - usually about 15 years. And it's "mandatory", the judge has to make the sentence "life", unless he thinks it would be unjust, in which case he doesn't have to. So that's OK then. Do judges routinely apply sentences they consider unjust? No, they don't. So the effect of this two-strikes and you're out rule is... not a lot. But the headlines are good.

Our Ken makes the very valid point that the only reason so many crims are escaping the mandatory "life" sentence for murder is that the doctors are getting good at keeping people alive, even if they are vegetables thereafter. And for murder it's real mandatory "life" - the judge has no choice after a jury has pronounced "guilty of murder" - although it's not real life, just the somewhat shorter "life". (The main effect is to be on parole for the rest of your life after release.) The mandatory bit is real though; no judge's discretion when it's murder.

But the good bit in Ken's reforms are buried in the small print. He's abolishing indeterminate sentences. These sentences allow a judge to say, "You're going to jail and we'll let you out when we feel like it." They are an abomination contrary to all natural justice, introduced of course by the last Labour government who had no qualms about kicking over the pillars of justice.

Crimes should be matched to punishments. The punishment can then be scaled by aggravating and mitigating aspects of the crime; time off for pleading guilty, time off for trying to make restitution; time off for genuine remorse (like turning yourself in before being caught) and time added for abusing a position of trust or picking on a particularly vulnerable person.

The punishment should never be open-ended, simply because all citizens are equal before the law, and rightly expect to be treated equally. A punishment lottery is not justice.

Ken Clarke has called indeterminate sentences a "stain on our justice system," and now he has abolished them. Way to go Ken! If only you were sound on Europe you'd be Prime Minister by now.

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