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Wednesday, June 14, 2006 

And so it rumbles on: Blair ducks the blame, and the Sun continues to wail.

For those who still refuse to believe the influence the tabloids, and especially the Sun have on our politics, they'll have to find some way to explain the main exchanges between David Cameron and Blair at today's Prime Minister's question time. Blair adopted his usual tactic in response to Cameron rightly attacking John Reid for blaming everyone but the government's own decision to adopt the guidelines suggested by the sentence council; he blamed the Tories.

Now we're told that John Reid is going to tighten up the parole system. The tightening of the system is a good first step, but it must be on the basis that the protection of the public comes first. It should not just reject every prisoner coming up who has committed murder or other serious crimes; each case still needs to be judged on its merits, the behaviour of the prisoner in jail and his remorse and rehabilitation while serving his sentence. What should be changed is that those who still refuse to admit to their crimes, but have perfect behaviour records should be allowed out. At the moment those who deny their crimes are left to rot because of their refusal to admit their guilt. The few that do are those who are often genuinely innocent. The balance needs to be struck carefully but fairly.

Second, as Marcel Berlins recommends, when someone's guilt is so obvious, like in the cases of Alan Webster and Craig Sweeney, then they should not have reductions in their sentences simply for pleading guilty. Their crimes have rightly outraged opinion, without the Sun leaping in and blaming the judges for simply do what the guidelines set down for them to do. Ministers such as John Reid, as the Guardian leader argues, should also damp down the scorn of the likes of the Sun rather than encouraging it. Both men received life sentences, whether they are eligible for parole after 5 years or 8 years respectively. There is no guarantee that they will be released by parole boards, and considering that both were convicted of second serious offences, there is little hope of them being released any time soon. At the same time, the Sun should also recognise that the lives of these men will shortly be hardly worth living; they will no doubt be assaulted, have their food tampered with and be treated as the scum they undoubtedly are.

The Sun's leader today recognises none of this. It refuses to admit that prison fails those who are sent to them; those who enter it young come out as career criminals. It protects society, but it fails those who have originally failed.

But the PM must tackle the nonsense which says life does NOT mean life.

Which idiot dreamed that up?

The Tories’ policy of honesty in sentencing is about right.

It states a convicted criminal must serve the sentence dished out by a court.

Not half.

Or a third for pleading guilty.

The PM should also order the building of new prisons — urgently.

Prison works and the figures prove it.

There must be no excuses for early release into a society already plagued by thugs, killers and perverts.

Justice must not just be done. Justice must be seen to be done.

Life should not always mean life. Life imprisonment for a first crime means that the defendant has no chance of repentance, of reforming or being rehabilitated. As a result we condemn that person to a life of abject pointlessness. As much as those affected by that person's crime no doubt want punitive punishment, if we condemn all those who offend once then most of the country's population will be locked away. Forgiving but not forgetting, as long as the offender regrets his offence and is no longer a danger to the public should be the order of the day. No one questions that those who commit a second serious offence should face a much more punitive, if not life sentence. The Sun's demand that life should always mean life should be rejected.

Then we're back yet again to the building of more prisons. Despite the prison population fast approaching 80,000, despite figures from the Prison Reform Trust which shows that overcrowding as it currently is raises the reoffending rate by more than 10%, and the simple fact that the building of more prisons will simply result in yet more being incarcerated, there is no evidence that prison works, no matter what the Sun says. As the Prison Reform Trust additionally states, non-violent women, shoplifters, petty fraudsters and those awaiting trial should not be in prison. As Jonathan Freedland points out, neither should the estimated 5,000 who have serious mental health problems. As a result of there being so few mental health hospitals, and there being so few beds, they are instead left with little to look forward to other than going in out of prison for the rest of their lives. Care in community fails them.

The Sun's campaign against judges is also fundamentally flawed. The average sentence now served by a mandatory lifer is 14 years - higher than 10 years ago when Michael "Prison Works!" Howard was Home Secretary. Judges are increasingly passing down harsher sentences. Blair pointed out at question time that over 1,000 indeterminate sentences have been given since April 2004. Those sentences mean that those convicted are so dangerous that only when they are considered no longer a threat to public safety will they be released, or considered by parole boards. None so far have been.

The Guardian leader gets it right:
The current hysteria does little to protect the public and much to destroy public confidence in the criminal-justice system. It substitutes the rule of the lynch mob for the rule of law. It is time for the government to call off the dogs.

As does the interviewing of those directly harmed by Alan Webster and Craig Sweeney's crimes. While their input is valuable and shows the hurt caused, neither have properly known what they were talking about. The grandfather interviewed on Newsnight last night couldn't even get Blair's well-known slogan "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" right. Only when the cases are discussed rationally does good government and sentencing come as a result. At the moment rationality is thrown out the window in favour of finger-pointing and distortion. The government must move to make a good system which is working, however much the Sun screams, better. In the current atmosphere that is impossible.

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