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Wednesday, March 28, 2007 

Building on years of knee-jerking.

A weary sense of deja-vu washes over you, reading yet another outburst of reforms to be made, or at least proposed to be eventually made to the criminal justice system. It was billed by some as the government preparing to admit that less offenders have to be sent to prison, and Nick Clegg has claimed that this may turn out to be "a significant victory for liberalism", but back down here on planet Earth it looks anything but.

It's true that the document behind Blair's speech, Building on progress: Security, crime and justice (PDF), does contain some measures that could be considered liberal. It doesn't risk mentioning cutting the record numbers in prison for risk of offending the tabloids, but does use a euphemism, "stabilising sentencing" which might well mean that the great prison building program, the seeing of no ships and the converting of old army bases into gulags might be put on hold. Non-custodial sentences are going to be made more "effective", meaning tougher or harsher, and drug rehabilitation in prison is going to be strengthened.

The problem is that we've heard it all before. Year after year we've been told that alongside the ever harsher sentencing regimes that community service sentencing is going to be encouraged and tightened. It hasn't happened. Judges have jumped at the chance of using the new indeterminate sentence, but the message hasn't got through that community service was meant to be promoted alongside accordingly to keep the balance right. Why should we be surprised, expect otherwise or blame the judges when all we and they ever hear about is Home Office scandals and that "soft" sentences are being axed?

The same thing applies with drug rehabilitation. It's been a problem for years, nay decades, the solution is relatively obvious, but it just hasn't happened. Prisons aren't the best places to try to treat drug addiction to begin with, but with it being unlikely that it would be acceptable for those who are convicted of crimes that are related to drug problems to instead being sentenced to specialised units, they're probably the least worst option. Again, making heroin available on the NHS would also probably help, but it's a decision that a politician would flinch at making when drugs which help those suffering from Alzheimer's are considered too expensive. Millions can be wasted on a IT system which few people within the service want and which is being "delivered" by the incompetent and the greedy, but making a genuine difference to the lives of people throughout the country is a step too far.

The next bright idea is that in the long-term (i.e. never) "hybrid-prisons" will be set-up to treat mentally ill offenders. This seems to miss the entire point that the mentally ill shouldn't be dumped in the prison system in the first place. The current system, with the mass closure of mental health wards has meant that the current situation is only likely to get worse.

And, err, that's it. That's pretty much all the liberal reforms suggested. The rest range from the unspeakable and the irredeemable to the impossible. Children are going to be subjected to further poking, proding and testing, lest they show any sign of criminal tendencies. These include low attainment at school, bunking off and the abusing of illegal substances. Seeing as the last is definitely a crime and the second can be, excuse me not being too enthusiastic. Again, how is this going to be done effectively in the first place and why is this in any way acceptable in the second? When social workers can't apparently tell that a girl being forced to wear a sign informing those around her that she's evil is at risk of being abused, how is it going to work?

This isn't even the worst of it. Anyone who so much as comes into contact with the police from now on is likely to have their particulars taken, as in their fingerprints and DNA. The "hated" "human rights laws" are to be "reviewed" to make sure that they're not restricting implementation of asylum and immigration policies, which means in short that they're looking to make it easier to deport people but will most likely leave things rightly as they are. Not Saussure notices that the document praises the fact that the police can now use helicopters equipped with infrared cameras that can detect cannabis farms through the heat generated by the growing lamps, which seems like a brilliant use of both time and money. Oh, and it turns out that all those CCTV cameras aren't actually that good are producing clear evidence: more is going to be spent on upgrading them.

The government has driven itself into a hole. Forever wanting to appease the tabloids, it long ago gave up any attempt to fight the causes of crime as well as crime itself. As Simon Jenkins argues, the solutions are relatively simple. They just need a minister and a government that's prepared to fight, and this one, which has been so ready and willing to do it overseas, simply can't face doing it at home.

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