For many months now, the Conservative Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has been promising a radical overhaul of sentencing policy. Although some may dismiss this combative rhetoric as cheap populism, a large proportion of the electorate regard the criminal justice system as feeble and wholly unresponsive to the wishes of the law abiding majority.
This week, it was revealed that only 1 in 10 violent criminals convicted of first time offences receive prison sentences. These crimes include such things as assault, burglary, kidnap, and threats to kill. In light of the mass outrage surrounding Operation Yewtree, it is also quite extraordinary to discover that just a third of first time sex offenders have been handed custodial sentences. Similarly, there have been reports of rapists being given community sentences, a punishment which at first glance appears almost offensively soft.
These revelations encapsulate the way in which criminal policy has moved away from a retributive model, founded on the due punishment of fully responsible persons, to an alternative system that views crime as an inevitable consequence of social deprivation. It is of course tremendously important to judge individual cases in a nuanced and scrupulous fashion, so as to account for differing circumstances and factors. Nevertheless, in a just and law governed society, is it not the case that certain crimes should always warrant a lengthy prison sentence? When lives are irrevocably destroyed by acts of brutish criminality, it is hard to justify the moderate approach currently being pursued. If future tragedies can be prevented through the adoption of tougher sentencing policy, would it not be wise to fundamentally revise existing practices?
This argument however does rest on the assumption that the current prison system operates effectively. A quick look at the statistics suggests otherwise; over one in four criminals reoffend within a year of release, and a staggering 47.2 per cent of individuals leaving prison go on to reoffend at some point. An uncompromising criminal justice system would undoubtedly deter potential wrong-doers through fear of imprisonment, but surely prison must serve another purpose? The recidivism rates clearly demonstrate a failure on the part of prisons to rehabilitate inmates, preventing them from reintegrating back into society and exacerbating the cycle of perpetual criminality.
It is a well-known fact that politicians of all persuasions prefer attention grabbing sound bites and transparent gimmicks as an alternative to thorough, detailed policy proposals. This may well be the case with Mr Grayling’s recent pronouncements. But he would be foolish not to act on his word. As well as mobilising the core conservative vote, reforms of this kind would also attract traditional Labour supporters, many of whom tend to be disproportionately affected by crime and disorder. This is a golden opportunity for the Justice Secretary. It would be criminal not to take it.