DOMINIC LAWSON: Tough on crime? Labour voted against increasing the time served by offenders like Joanna Simpson’s killer husband
You would be surprised — or maybe not — by how much internal resistance confronts a government that decides it needs to ensure prisons can keep dangerous criminals inside for longer.
Look no further than a story in The Times last Friday about the expense of the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab’s plans to expand the number of prison places — and about the costs of custody generally. It was headlined: ‘UK prison population to pass 100,000 under sentencing crackdown.’
The article was full of dissent, including from one ‘senior government figure’ claiming there were ‘serious questions about affordability’ and adding: ‘The cost of prisons is taking up more and more of the Ministry of Justice budget.’
But these moans never take account of the price to the public of letting dangerous or prolific prisoners out well before their full term: and I don’t just mean the price in lives and trauma.
Some years ago, the Civitas think tank published research by a former Home Office criminologist, Professor Ken Pease. This found that prolific offenders admitted to prison commit an average of 140 crimes per year, while a government survey calculated a ‘social and economic cost’ of about £3,000 per crime.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab plans to expand the number of prison places
The research suggested that keeping each such criminal inside for longer therefore saved £420,000 per year. That is about ten times the cost of the same criminal’s annual stay at His Majesty’s pleasure.
Those ideologically opposed to the expansion of the prison estate always claim that tougher sentences don’t help deter the criminal.
Andrew Neilson of the Howard League for Penal Reform, criticising Raab, says that ‘successive governments have repeated the mistake of trying to tackle crime by growing the prison population, only to find this makes matters worse’.
In fact, as David Fraser, a former criminal intelligence analyst at the National Crime Agency, pointed out in his 2018 book Licence To Kill: Britain’s Surrender To Violence, there is a reoffending rate of 60 per cent among those who serve sentences of less than a year; 39 per cent for those who served between one and two years; 34 per cent for two to four years; 25 per cent for ten years and 14 per cent for those who have served ten years or more.
Given that the longer sentences would have been imposed on the most serious and persistent offenders, this strikingly demonstrates the deterrent effect of tougher sentencing.
Note that Fraser’s figures were for time actually served in prisons. This is the honest definition, as distinct from the dishonest version exemplified by the way the sentences handed down by the courts are automatically reduced by 50 per cent.
First under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and later under Tony ‘tough on crime’ Blair, the custom of releasing prisoners by ‘executive order’ after just half their sentence spread to cover ever more serious crimes.
The current Government has attempted to reverse the ratchet with its 2022 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. This increases from half to two-thirds the proportion of a sentence that must be served in custody by ‘sexual and serious offenders’ whose original term is at least seven years.
The ‘central star’ room connecting each wing of HMP Wandsworth, one of the largest prisons in Western Europe
Labour MPs, under the former Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Keir Starmer, voted against this Bill as it passed through the Commons. Bear that in mind when you hear Labour condemning the Conservatives’ record on crime.
A particularly disturbing example of the ’50 per cent off’ policy was revealed in Saturday’s Mail. This is the case of the former British Airways pilot Robert Brown, who in 2010 bludgeoned to death his estranged wife Joanna Simpson with a claw hammer and then buried her in a woodland grave he had previously dug.
Mysteriously, the jury acquitted Brown of murder: he was sentenced to 26 years for manslaughter on grounds of ‘diminished responsibility’.
As the murdered woman’s mother, Diana Parkes, told the Mail, Brown is eligible for automatic release this year, half-way through that sentence.
But given that since 2010 known criminals have been convicted of almost 700 murders while on probation, it is easy to see why it is not just Mrs Parkes who should be worried — though for her there is also the unimaginable prospect that it is her daughter’s killer who might soon be enjoying a freedom he will never deserve.
As for lesser crimes of violence, there are (or so it seems to me) bizarre decisions by judges or magistrates not to impose any custodial term at all, often giving ‘lack of prison spaces’ as a reason.
This is, of course, unacceptable, though it has been going on for a long time.
It was in 1980 that the Compendium of the Sentencing Guidelines council, which the courts are obliged to follow, first stated: ‘In view of the dangerous overcrowding of prisons, where a sentence of imprisonment is necessary, it should be as short as possible, consistent with public protection.’
The author of the blog The Wrong Side of History, the journalist Ed West, usefully tracks the consequences — of which I will give just three recent ones.
Less than a month ago, a serial offender, Ashley Mathers, who has been convicted of more than 40 offences, was in court yet again, after punching a paramedic and assaulting a police officer.
Ashley Mathers, 39, was found guilty of punching a paramedic and assaulting a policeman last year
He was given a 16-week suspended sentence and, instead of serving time in prison, was told he had to pay £100 each to the emergency workers he had attacked. At which point he told the court: ‘This is boring. I can’t pay.’
Three months ago, two men, 23-year-old Urfan Amjad and 20-year-old Fahim Shukat, were given suspended sentences of 24 and 14 months respectively — that is, not sent to prison — having been found guilty at Manchester Crown Court of a violent and sustained attack on a stranger, who had a beer bottle smashed over his head, after which one of his attackers used the shards to ‘try to stab him’.
The victim was in and out of hospital for three months, and has been left with permanent scarring. How must he feel to know that his attackers have not had to spend a single night in prison?
And in May 2022, two men, Mohammed Asib Ali, 23, and Uzair Bhatti, 31, received non-custodial sentences for a still more savage assault in Preston city centre on Mitchell Gibbons, who was beaten so badly that he remained in a coma for 12 days and underwent extensive surgery, with half his skull being removed to alleviate the bruising to his brain.
None of these cases interested the national media: these details all come from the local papers covering the courts.
So when I read, in yesterday’s Sunday Times, an analysis of Home Office data revealing that an extraordinarily small percentage of ‘low level’ crimes result in charges, I am not surprised.
How motivated would the police be to devote their limited time to such investigations, when they know that even success will not result in any meaningful punishment?
Besides which, they are so inundated with ever-increasing social and form-filling obligations that have little to do with crime, it is also unsurprising that their performance leaves many victims wondering what the point of the police is.
As David Fraser observed in his important book: ‘A report by the police inspectorate revealed that only 31 per cent of their time was spent dealing with criminals, of which only 13 per cent was devoted to investigating crime.’
It is at least a good thing that this Government has instituted the biggest prison enlargement plan for decades — especially if it encourages judges to stop worrying about overcrowding and to hand down the custodial sentences that the public rightly expects to be the punishment for serious repeat offenders.
As for the peculiarly persistent idea that this would be a great waste of taxpayers’ money, the truth is that to economise on the public’s safety is both a political and a moral failing.
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