Keeping lawyers in work
The furore over short prison terms is just the latest example of how easily ascertained, widely-held principles can become almost irredeemably tangled up by the Byzantine complexity inevitably resulting from repeated Government interference. The criminal justice "system" ought to represent a few fairly straightforward principles which the courts can apply when it comes to sentencing and punishment. The problem is that it's aimed at lawyers moreso than almost any other area of legislation. Whereas the people hold the Government accountable for the outcomes of the system it is the courts which do much of the implementation and have a very wide discretion as to how to solve it.
As a result we see Government, often in a knee-jerk manner, interfering with the system through new measures far too often. The Blair Government has introduced more criminal justice bills than it has had years in office. Even more were promised today in Parliament. Paradoxically, however, perhaps the best thing which a Government could do in criminal justice is to promise to do nothing for four years instead of these knee-jerk responses to whatever happens to fire the public imagination this week. If it did this, the courts could begin to acquaint themselves properly with the rules and apply them in something approaching an integrated manner, rather than - as so often happens - fumbling around in the dark with whatever the latest legislation is this week. Could we hope this could happen? Fat chance.
Instead we will get another array of provisions which must be applied by the courts with ever greater complexity rendering the system full of even more anomalies and legal exceptions. Lawyers (with frozen legal aid, mind) will truly be the only people who can properly follow it. Those of us unfortunate enough to become involved with the criminal courts as laypeople will be baffled by its intricacies and how hard it is to follow. And yet this should not be the case.
Why can't we have life sentences meaning life? Why can't we genuinely trust judges to set down sentences which are proportionate to the gravity of the crime and depravity of the criminal? Why when it comes to sentencing can't the system become truly transparent? Surely, if we accept prisoners need the prospect of parole, we can revamp, more honestly, how we describe jail terms. Why not describe a ten year sentence as it stands today, as a sentence of between five and ten years?
These seem to me questions with simple answers; but to act in response to them and sweep away the Byzantine layers of sentencing legislation, replacing it with a simple framework allowed to develop uninterfered for some years would require real political capital and conviction. Neither of which are evident in this unseemly row.