British people want tough justice – why don’t our political parties?

Jonathan Armott seeks to understand why British people feel that their views on crime and justice aren’t represented in Westminster


Let’s suppose that you were sitting down with a blank piece of paper and trying to decide what issue a political party should be focusing on in British politics at the moment. Now, I’m not decrying the usual stuff – Brexit is important, not least because it’s a prerequisite for changing other policies, and obviously how you approach the economy is going to matter. Those things do matter, but broadly speaking the whole spectrum of opinion is represented by existing political parties.

Another, more pressing question, is this: Where is the biggest disconnect between popular opinion and political parties? Given that new political parties are currently popping up more often than toast from a toaster, this would be a rather important question for many people out there. Where’s the big cause, the issue where people simply feel that existing established parties fail to represent them? Which issues are being completely ignored by our politicians?

Fortunately, we don’t need to guess: there’s been some polling conducted on this very subject. I’d prefer it to be three dimensions rather than two, but the picture tells the story of a thousand words – as I discovered to my cost when trying to explain this graph to someone who couldn’t physically see it.

The number one belief held by a majority of British people, where they also feel that political parties leave them completely unrepresented, is that our criminal justice system is not harsh enough. It would be nice if the graph added a third dimension – showing how important each belief is to those who hold it. In the absence of that, though, we can note that both MORI and YouGov show crime as either fourth or fifth of all concerns held by the British public.

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There’s a massive political opening for anyone pointing out that our criminal justice system is far too lenient. Indeed, you could even be a moderate on crime if you were an American citizen and still support a system that’s far harsher than that of the United Kingdom. But America is hardly a bastion of best practice; left-wing criticisms (that their justice system can be ‘gamed’ by those able to afford the best lawyers) have some validity there. A better example, to prove (amongst other things) that the combination of deterrence and rehabilitation works is Singapore. Sitting in a geographical region of massive drugs trade and crime, Singapore has some of the lowest crime levels in the world. Unsurprisingly, that results in the government being re-elected on a regular basis with 65-70% of the vote.

The left wing may speak of rehabilitation in glowing terms, and there is nothing wrong per se in doing so. What is wrong, is when political correctness denies the existence of the other reasons for punishment: the principle of justice, the notion that a punishment should be fitting for the crime because when it does not, there is an injustice – not ‘social injustice’, but true injustice. When a society makes excuses for criminals, it leads to more crime. When the rehabilitation of offenders trumps protection of victims, keeping the public safe from further offences, there’s something wrong. And when statistics are manipulated in such a way as to deny the self-evident truth of deterrence, it leads to a one-sided criminal justice system which criminally fails to deliver justice.

The problem does not necessarily lie with the law; it is rarely the case that the maximum permitted sentence in law would not be sufficient for punishment of a crime. Yet sentencing guidelines tie the hands of judges and magistrates; the one-third discount on sentence for a timely guilty plea pushes sentences down still further. This having been done, prisoners are released on licence having served only half of the remaining time. So if a crime merits a 6-year prison sentence, even according to the lax sentencing guidelines, the guilty plea will immediately bring that down to 4 years. After serving just 2 years, the prisoner will be released.

The whole system is wrong: a motorist accidentally clicking a speed camera will be punished more severely than a shoplifter deliberately committing an offence of dishonesty. Police cautions are issued for crimes which justify far more. Police are under-resourced, and their limited time is often spent investigating non-crimes. The Crown Prosecution Service is understaffed and prone to politically-correct decision-making. Solicitors defending cases tend to receive more money than those prosecuting, leading to a talent imbalance exacerbated by the greater incentives for dissemination on the part of unscrupulous defence solicitors. Prosecutors are overworked, and often unprepared as they frequently see paperwork too late. Defence mitigating arguments are often unchallenged – the resources aren’t there to challenge them, leading to still lower sentences being imposed.

When it comes to crime, at least, there has never been a more opportune time to make a socially conservative argument that the system should be tougher. When a solicitor is making an argument in court which the judge clearly agrees with, the judge frequently remarks that the solicitor is ‘pushing at an open door’. If you try making a reasoned case for a more robust criminal justice system, then certainly with the average member of the public, you’ll likely find yourself pushing at an open door.

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