In the Media

Police leader: courts are going soft on crime

PUBLISHED May 11, 2009

Courts are going soft on crime by allowing offenders to "renegotiate" the terms of their community sentences, the leader of Britain's police officers has warned.

Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation, pointed to recent cases where criminals were allowed to change the terms of their curfews or unpaid work orders after they complained that the original conditions were too harsh.

Speaking ahead of the Federation's annual conference this week, he said: "This exemplifies the softening of attitudes. It is absolutely barking mad.

"Whoever is in office we don't much mind, but the people who are in office have not got it right for the last 12 years. There has not been joined-up thinking. There has been too much sound bite policy-making."

The chairman, who represents 140,000 rank-and-file officers in England and Wales, said more needed to be done to improve rehabilitation of offenders.

He said: "The whole criminal justice system is not set up on the basis of what works but on keeping as many people out of prison as possible because we don't have the funds to put people through prison and rehabilitation.

"It is up to the rest of the criminal justice system to be given the tools and the sentences that are appropriate, and which are going to act as a deterrent.

"If you put someone in prison and they come out still unable to write then that makes a complete mockery of the whole thing."

The three day conference will also include sessions on tackling knife crime and the future of policing.

"Community sentences are almost laughable. They have become a bit of a joke. There is so much anecdotal evidence about people simply not turning up, or turning up late."

He also accused Labour of having "failed abysmally" on crime over the past 12 years, and said that police were being blamed for failures elsewhere in the justice system.

Cases raised by Mr MrKeever include that of offender Debbie Stallard, from Paignton, Devon, who refused to carry out unpaid work because she claimed she could only wear high heels.

When probation officers took the 47-year-old back to court for failing to complete 80 hours of work ? her punishment for failing to provide a breath test ? magistrates postponed the case for medical reports.

Mr McKeever also criticised the case of convicted knife criminal Kane Beales, 19, who was let off by magistrates after refusing to wear a bright orange jacket while serving a community sentence, claiming it would be humiliating.

Last month, butler Gary Lindley, from Devon, was given permission to vary his curfew ? imposed after an assault conviction ? after his employer, the Countess of Arran, argued in court that the sentence was keeping him from his duties, and denying her his exceptional scrambled eggs for breakfast.

The Government has urged magistrates and judges to hand out more community sentences, insisting that they are a genuinely-tough alternative to prison.

But Mr McKeever said: "One of the things that has to change is that 'no' has to mean 'no'. People should not be able to renegotiate their anti-social behaviour orders, their curfews and their community service orders.

"The sentences of the court have become almost negotiable and offenders can renegotiate their punishment. That seems nonsensical to us."

He added: "The feeling within the police is that we take an awful lot of stick and are blamed for the general failure of the criminal justice system.

"That's mainly because we are the most visible element of that system. We are fed up of being blamed for the failures which lie elsewhere."

In January this year, lawyers for four youths from Torquay, Devon, who were handed Asbos banning them from wearing "hoodies" took their case back to magistrates, arguing that the ban should be lifted because the offenders were suffering from cold heads.

Solicitor John Smethurst told the court on behalf of his client: "If it is cold or raining he should be able to wear a hood." The ban on hoodies was upheld temporarily, pending a further hearing.

Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, is due to share a platform with Mr McKeever at the conference in Bournemouth, where he will criticise the Government's record on crime.

Ahead of his speech, Mr McKeever told this newspaper: "Labour have had a long time to do something about it and they have failed abysmally.

"We are not in the business of party politics. But whichever administration is in power, they have some very difficult decisions ahead of them. Whether it is Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru or whoever, we want them to address the reoffending rate.