England’s slap-dash Justice System

Law and disorder
Apr 27th 2006
From The Economist

Tony Blair may have had worse weeks in politics but it is hard to think when. The first of three articles looks at Labour’s confused record on criminal justice

EARLIER this week, Tony Blair and Charles Clarke, the home secretary, corrected some misapprehensions about Britain. It is not a police state. Nor is it a gulag, a fascist state or a nation in which the rule of law has been overthrown. Such calumnies, they complained, have been put about by journalists and a retired judge who make Labour out to be more authoritarian than it actually is.

Proof, of an odd and unwelcome kind, was soon forthcoming. On April 25th, Mr Clarke admitted that, since 1999, 1,023 foreign convicts who ought to have been considered for deportation after serving their sentences had simply been released onto Britain’s streets. Among them were three murderers and nine rapists. Fully 288 had been released since last summer, when the Home Office became aware of the problem. The tabloid press, which dislikes foreign criminals even more than the home-grown kind, was apoplectic. Britain, a police state? If only.

The problem, as the Home Office lamely explained, is that there are a lot of foreign prisoners to cope with. Their numbers have increased steeply in the past decade, from 4,300 in 1996 to at least 10,300 this spring. The inept, over-stretched prison service failed to let immigration officers know that many convicts were nearing the end of their sentences. Sometimes they did, but the similarly incompetent immigration service failed to act.

The scandal, which may yet cost Mr Clarke his job, illuminates some important features of Labour’s record on law and order. Since 1997 the government has pursued a tough criminal-justice agenda. It has added new and draconian laws to the statute book, the kind that outrages judges and liberal newspapers, including this one. As a result, the prison population has risen (see chart). But the bigger, more complex criminal-justice machine that has resulted is unmanageable and, in some respects, worse at protecting the public.

Labour ministers like to say that their criminal-justice policies are attuned to public concerns, and this is true. The government tends to proceed by identifying a menace, be it terrorism, knife crime or teenage rowdyism. Against the protests of civil libertarians, it then creates new powers to deal with this menace. A team of civil servants cajoles the police into using the new powers. Statistics are collected, and, with luck, the menace is shown to wane. Mr Blair was at it again this week, pledging to let the police seize the cars of suspected drug dealers unless the owners can prove they came by them lawfully.

Since the mid-1990s, criminal-justice bills have appeared at the rate of two a year—roughly double the 1980s rate. That is, in itself, a problem. “The amount of new legislation is so huge that very few full-time judges are fully aware of developments in the law,” says one criminal-court judge. Once senior wigs get around to scrutinising the new laws, they often find things that need to be clarified, or changed.

Creating more crimes has created more criminals. But the prison population has been driven upward mostly by stiffer sentences for old-fashioned crimes. In 1993 49% of those sentenced in the Crown Court and 6% sentenced in magistrates’ courts (where less serious offences are dealt with) received custodial sentences. By 2002 the courts were putting away 63% and 16%, respectively. This is not because they were dealing with more heinous crimes. In 2002 magistrates handed custodial sentences to one in four of those who stole from cars—the classic petty offence. In 1993, just one in 20 met that fate.


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