Last year Verna Bryant’s daughter Naomi was brutally murdered by a dangerous sex offender who had just been let out of jail on parole (life licence). His release into the community was not just a tragic mistake, the sort of terrible error that can occur from time to time in any system. It was, in the words of a damning report by the chief inspector of probation, due to “a string of failures”. Last Friday Verna Bryant announced that she is suing the government under the Human Rights Act for violation of her daughter’s human right to be protected by the state.
One can only sympathise, odd though this sounds. I am extremely wary of the notion of human rights and of the ways in which human rights legislation can be used to perverse ends. However, it does certainly seem to me that the single most important duty that a government has to its citizens is to protect them. One might call that a universal human right, or one might more reasonably call it the first essential of a social contract in a civilised society. Yet it is becoming increasingly obvious that in this country our government and our criminal justice service are failing us and — if you want to put it this way, which I wouldn’t — violating our right to be safe.
Naomi Bryant’s murder is not an isolated case. One of the killers of John Monckton, the London banker, was let out of jail despite an official assessment that he was 91% likely to commit a violent offence again. Four of the torturers and killers of the teenager Mary-Ann Leneghan were on probation, supposedly under proper supervision. Perhaps the victims’ families should consider suing the government.
Admittedly it would be unfair to dump the entire burden of blame on the probation service; it suffers from recruitment problems, overwork, underfunding and a departmental shake-up. These things are disasters waiting to happen and along with them are many other lesser crimes.
For all new Labour’s promises to be tough on crime, violent crime has gone up since 1997 and recent reports of stabbings among teenagers suggest what police and social workers have also been saying: that a frightening new knife culture has developed — so much so that the government recently promised a daft knife amnesty.
This is to say nothing of dangerous foreign criminals being let loose into the community and then “lost”, despite the repeated warnings since 2002 of the chief inspector of prisons, who broke silence on this last week.
What is the response of the powers that be to all this? Confusion, contradiction and undignified spats between government and top judges. It defies belief. The home secretary took office just the other day saying that the government wanted tougher jail sentences, and last Thursday he was considering plans with ministers to give longer sentences of up to five years to people who carry knives.
Yet the same day it emerged that murderers and rapists who confess could get their sentences hugely reduced in accordance with new proposals being considered by the Sentencing Advisory Panel under Lord Phillips, the lord chief justice.
He caused quite a sensation last week by saying in public that the prison service is fatally flawed and warning that judges should not send people to prison unless they absolutely have to; overcrowding makes rehabilitation impossible and “the sensible place for rehabilitation is in the community”. He went on to say, however, that the public would not tolerate community sentencing if it did not involve “significant punishment”.
Then, in a genuinely shocking exposure in The Times on Friday, it emerged that for all the government’s tough talk, ministers are seeking emergency powers to allow the early release of thousands of prisoners, not on judicial grounds but to relieve overcrowding in prisons; there are only 1,860 spaces left in jails in England and Wales. The wonderfully weaselly name which has been dreamt up for this ruse is “administrative release”.
This hardly inspires confidence. It is ludicrous. Yet there is, if only people could get the better of their preconceptions, a solution which would suit everyone from liberal to authoritarian. The two passionately held preconceptions that have to go are first, that prison doesn’t work (as a deterrent) and second, that community sentencing does.
Neither is true and there is plenty of evidence. Nor is it true that we imprison more people, proportionately, than other countries do; on the contrary, we have a higher crime rate than most Europeans and jail relatively fewer criminals.
It is true that prisons are no place for rehabilitation (in so far as it might be possible) as they are today, but nor is the community. If it is impossible, as it clearly is, even to supervise offenders for a couple of hours a week in the community, how could it be possible genuinely to teach and guide and help them? It is also true that many of the wrong people are in prison, so to speak, for lack of anything else to do with them. Many suffer from mental illness, personality disorders or learning disabilities, and at least two-thirds are illiterate and unemployable, and they are all slung in together to take their miserable chances.
What all these offenders need is a safe, uncrowded place where they can be humanely detained, treated and educated — perhaps rehabilitated. They don’t all need the same kind of place and they don’t all need the same kind of treatment, but they need to be separated from the rest of us, for a time at least, for our protection. For their own protection they should be sent to different kinds of institution, from decent mental hospitals to enlightened training centres as well as secure prisons.
What is blindingly clear is that we need more institutions for offenders, whether they are actually called prisons or not. And the man who is standing in the way of this, in the way of proper treatment of prisoners and proper protection of the public, is Gordon Brown. Labour has been very reluctant to build new jails and all but two requests for more prisons have been turned down by the Treasury.
I am beginning to have some sympathy with the quaint idea of suing the government, starting with the Treasury.