In the Media

Let justice be served on?the public's behalf

PUBLISHED September 7, 2012

This has been both a bad week and good week for the administration of justice. First, the bad. The arrest of Andrew and Tracey Ferrie on suspicion of causing grievous bodily harm, after the shooting of two alleged burglars at their isolated Leicestershire cottage, was an outrage. Of course the police had to investigate the circumstances, and the discharge of a shotgun; but to treat the victims as criminals, and to detain them for two days, was to turn justice on its head. The speedy decision of the Crown Prosecution Service not to prefer charges was no doubt a great relief to the couple. But this was an ordeal that they should never have been put through.

This impression of the modern criminal justice system as a topsy-turvy world was compounded by the asinine utterances of Judge Peter Bowers at Teesside Crown Court on Tuesday. Sentencing Richard Rochford, a burglar who had previously been jailed for arson, the judge said: "It takes a huge amount of courage… to burgle someone else's house." For good measure, he decided against sending Rochford to jail, adding: "Prison very rarely does anyone any good." That is patently absurd: it does the public good, by keeping criminals - many of whom are persistent offenders - off the streets. They are deprived of liberty not to make them better people, but as a safeguard and punishment. The judge presumably meant that many people who go to prison continue to offend upon their release. That is a valid point - but such recidivism often has more to do with the nature of an individual than of their incarceration.

Which brings us to the good news: the appointment of Chris Grayling as Justice Secretary in this week's reshuffle. As a consequence of Tony Blair's botched constitutional reforms, Mr Grayling also becomes Lord Chancellor, the first non-lawyer to occupy this ancient office since the Archbishop of York under Queen Mary in 1558. This has provoked some disdain in the profession; but the Lord Chancellor no longer heads the judiciary nor sits as a judge, so being a layman is no impediment. Indeed, it may well be an advantage. As with welfare and education, this is a policy area ripe for reform, one where the Government's attitudes and rhetoric need to reflect the concerns of the wider public, and not just the preoccupations of a small group of vocal campaigners. Too often, the public are left feeling that they inhabit a different world from the criminal justice elites who run the police, the courts and the prison system. For instance, when the public were asked a few years ago by the Today programme to nominate one piece of legislation they would most like to see brought in, a majority opted for a law granting property owners immunity when defending their homes against intruders.

Unfairly, perhaps, the previous justice secretary came, for many, to personify this estrangement of the justice system from the public. For all his experience, Kenneth Clarke often appeared to worry more about the offenders than their victims. His ambition of setting up a sentencing regime that did not simply churn out hardened criminals, but encouraged more convicts to go straight, was well meant. But it needed to be accompanied by language and policies that reflected public anxieties about crime, rather than dismissing them as exaggerated or misplaced.

Mr Grayling has been caricatured as a Right-wing "hanger and flogger". But he is nothing of the sort. As employment minister, he created an innovative scheme to pay private firms and charities for getting ex-prisoners into work. This was a pragmatic response to research showing that a third of those claiming Jobseeker's Allowance had criminal records, and that two years after being released from prison, 47 per cent of offenders were still claiming out-of-work benefits.

All sides agree that the rate of re-offending is too high; if it is reduced, everyone will gain. That task may be harder to achieve in times of austerity. But it will be greatly helped if we move away from sterile distinctions between penal campaigners and the "bang 'em up brigade". Voters will support enlightened reforms, but only if they are set in a context that they understand - one that recognises above all the difference between what is right and what is wrong.