SQUARE PEG

When asked how long is a piece of string, my late father, much exercised by home spun homilies, replied: “Too short to be of any use, and too long to throw away.”

With this in mind, my thoughts turn to Jack Straw, the Member of Parliament for Blackburn, and one of only three to have served continuously in cabinet since Labour came to power in 1997.

I find that an astonishing statistic, given his lack of political acumen, but as they say, the Labour Party is a broad church with room for all comers, as Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock would testify.

Another astonishing statistic for such an under achiever is the fact that he has occupied two of the highest posts in government within the gift of the Prime Minister to bestow, namely Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, and he and I both struggle to think of anything he did to mark his card for posterity.

No, that’s not quite fair. One moment de verité springs to mind. He once observed that when Muslim women come to his surgery for advice, dressed from head to toe in some enormous bell tent, he would prefer it if they exposed themselves. Or I think that’s what he said.

In 2007, after a spell as Leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw took the newly created post of Justice Secretary, and after some political trimming into the wind, also took over the responsibilities of Lord High Chancellor.

Given his track record, Jack Straw falls into the category of “good egg.” You know the type. Not good enough to make the team on merit, but generally a nice guy, and good enough to bring on the orange segments at half time, and make himself useful by refilling water bottles. So throughout his political career, it’s been a case of finding a job for Jack, even though, sadly, he’s a square peg in a round hole.

His time as Justice Secretary, where he is likely to remain until the General Election, has been a disappointment, even by his own modest standards. Most recently, he has fallen foul of the Chairman of the Parole Board, who described his decision to block the release of Ronnie Biggs as “irrational.” I suspect this was the last “straw” for Jack, who has now relinquished this remaining power, and not before time.

Eighteen months ago, in the Divisional Court, their lordships expressed concern about the independence of the Parole Board, given the right of the Justice Secretary to interfere in their decisions and override them. Their lordships expressed the opinion that confidence in the whole parole system could be undermined if this remained the case, an opinion echoed by the Chairman. He stated unequivocally that public trust in decisions concerning the release of prisoners could be undermined because of the political element involved.

There is more than enough concern expressed by the public over the early release of prisoners, especially by victims of crime and their relatives. But just as the emotive element should play no part in crime and punishment, by the same token it is in the public interest that the independence of the Parole Board is asserted without political interference.

BEMOANERS BEGONE

Crime and punishment have been in the news again this week. It has been a week of ‘bemoaning.’ First we had Sara Payne bemoaning the uncertainties surrounding release dates of long term prisoners, mindful no doubt of the prisoner convicted of abducting, abusing and murdering her daughter. Then we had Kier Starmer, the beleaguered Director of Public Prosecutions, bemoaning the increasing use by the Police of cautions, even in cases where serious crimes have been committed.

Speaking for myself, I deplore the “steps of the court” cameo TV appearances of the relatives of victims, straight from the worst excesses of American soap operas, herded together by Plod and bemoaning the acquittal of the accused, or more often, the fact that the perpetrator of the crime has been sentenced to less than 150 years in prison, without parole. As soon as I see these ‘moaners’, I hit the mute button. They know nothing about the law, and besides, it’s so unBritish!

Leaving aside the emotional baggage which Mrs. Payne brings to the debate, the present system of sentencing convicted offenders to life imprisonment is as good as it’s likely to get, and is in the public domain. The judge is obliged to “set a tariff,” namely the minimum sentence to be served in prison before parole can be considered. Note my emphasis, as parole is certainly not a formality and far from a shoo in. Once the tariff has been served, the prisoner will indeed apply for parole, but he must satisfy the Parole Board, and ultimately the Secretary of State for Justice, that he is no longer a danger to the public if released on licence. That licence is for life, so if he reoffends, or fails to obey any of the rules laid down by his supervising officer in the community, his licence will be revoked and he will be returned to custody, often for several more years before a fresh application for parole will be entertained.

In this country, and with a few notable exceptions, we try to balance retribution with rehabilitation. It is the hallmark of a civilised society that no man is beyond redemption. Mrs. Payne will be kept informed of any application by her daughter’s killer for parole, and will be invited to make representations, but ultimately the decision to refuse parole or release on licence must be made by those who have the necessary expertise and who are not emotionally involved.

As for Kier Starmer, I suspect he’s wondering what he let himself in for when he took the job. Breaking the mould of his predecessors, who were conspicuous by their silence, he has been asked to make decisions and to hold himself accountable, and on any view, his has been an uncomfortable experience. Put bluntly, he looks hopelessly out of his depth. Firstly there was the issue of assisted suicide, forced on him by the now defunct House of Lords, and now the overuse of police cautions. Graphic pictures of victims of violent crime and scarred for life have been splashed across the pages of tabloids and broadsheets alike, accompanied by the question: “Why wasn’t my attacker prosecuted and not simply cautioned?”

It’s worth remembering that before Plod can issue a caution, the ‘criminal’ must admit guilt. If he denies the offence, he cannot be cautioned. And as we all know, a confession of guilt, freely obtained, is the best evidence to place before a court. There is a suspicion that the Crown Prosecution Service, for which Starmer has the ultimate responsibility, is using cautions as an easy option. It saves paperwork and time, as well as the time of Plod, who can be better employed operating radar controlled speed traps and chasing yobs through shopping arcades late at night.

My recent experiences of the CPS suggest they need a complete rethink of their priorities. At the same time, ways must be found to reduce the mountain of paperwork in even the simplest of cases, involving form filling and checking and rechecking and box ticking and file preparation of monumental proportions, and all too often, for little or nothing in return.

Kier Starmer must now stand up and be counted, and show some leadership. The courts must accept their share of responsibility and criticise where criticism is merited. Time for change and a new approach, and as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Problem is, there’s precious little evidence of a will, more like groping in the dark.

MURDER MOST FOUL

The government’s latest White Paper, concentrating as it does on women killing violent men, and the possible defences open to them, is an unnecessary distraction, ill conceived and simply complicates an already messy approach to this, the most serious crime on the statute books.

In 1965, the death penalty for murder was abolished, and as a sop to the “hang ‘em high” lobby, a mandatory life sentence was substituted, and it has remained ever thus. In addition, the sentencing judge is obliged to indicate the minimum term [known as the tariff] to be served before the offender can be considered for parole, or in some extreme cases, life without parole.

It is argued that in setting this minimum term, the sentencing judge can reflect the gravity of the offence, and introduce some degree of flexibility that is otherwise denied him.

This is all fine and dandy if it were not for the hoops which the convicted murderer must jump through when he applies for parole. It is not just the Parole Board that needs to be convinced, it is also the Secretary of State for Justice, whose input into the Board’s deliberations and findings can be crucial, and at times positively meddlesome. [See my earlier article The Independence of the Parole Board]

I don’t know if these sentencing judges are kept informed of the sentences actually served, I doubt it, and indeed, why would they? And does anybody check the time spent in custody against the recommended tariff? Certainly not the editor of the Daily Mail!

One example amongst many will suffice from my own professional experience, when I represented a convicted murderer before the Parole Board. He had murdered his landlady when in his late teens. There was nothing exceptional about the crime to attract maximum publicity. With his mandatory sentence of life imprisonment came a recommended tariff of twelve years. When I represented him, he had served thirty eight years, his entire adult life behind bars. It follows, as night the day, that the ‘tariff’ system doesn’t work.

But whilst sentencing judges are shackled with the absurdity of a mandatory life sentence, these injustices will remain.

The mandatory life sentence for murder should be abolished, with judges free to make the punishment fit the crime. This means determinate sentences should be available. In the most heinous cases, a life sentence will be appropriate, and sometimes without parole, but there should be a sliding scale, and not, as at present, one set in stone.

But I would go further. I would introduce the American system of murder by degrees, again to reflect the gravity of the act, together with the appropriate ‘tariff’. The French, que Dieu les bênisse, have crimes of passion, ideally suited to the wronged female, or male, as the case may be.

In this way, the punishment can indeed be made to fit the crime, and with greater flexibility comes greater fairness. The tariff will not be routinely ignored, and a measure of certainty for the serving prisoner will enter the equation.

By all means leave the offences of murder and manslaughter as they are, they seem to work well enough, offering as they do some limited scope for the endangered female. But the government’s approach is likely to do more harm than good, and is a recipe for confusion and worse still, real miscarriages of justice. For the average juror, the criminal process is complicated enough, without complicating it further.