Having recently returned from a few days abroad, I've only just caught up with what the new 'tough' Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told the party faithful in Birmingham last week. It seems that politicians just can't resist the temptation of talking 'tough on crime' when things are not going well for them.
Ken Clarke's 'rehabilitation revolution' is no more. All community sentences will have a 'punitive' element and there's to be a new hard line "two strikes and you're out" automatic life sentence for rapists and other violent criminals who commit a second serious offence. Somewhat bizarrely, the Home Secretary Theresa May announced a return to a Medieval approach to sentencing whereby the victims of anti social behaviour can select the punishment to be meted out in cases that don't go to court:-
"They will be given a list of options," said May. "They might want something restorative or punitive. They might want it to be carried out nearby or as far away as possible. But what matters is that the punishment will be chosen by the victim."
Possibly not the stocks, birching or flogging, but I guess it's early days yet for this novel so-called 'community remedy' criminal justice initiative. Apparently it's going to be organised by that other barmy development, the Police and Crime Commissioner. It's all a terrible accident waiting to happen and my guess is that the whole sad fiasco will end up being nothing but a small footnote in history, common sense having by then happily returned.
Damien Green, the new policing minister, neatly summed up the new policy approach with a quip in very poor taste:-
"Theresa used to say she locked 'em up and Ken let them out. Now Theresa locks 'em up, and Chris throws away the key."
I'm sure such sentiments will be well received by the likes of the Daily Mail and Inspector Gadget, but it's scary stuff, so scary in fact that a group of mostly academics have at last broken cover and responded in a letter to The Guardian yesterday:-
"Grayling correctly listed the factors contributing to offending behaviour. An over-focus on punishment, however, creates an unintended consequence - people tend to continue offending. Real results are obtained from rehabilitation and reintegration. In contrast, a disproportionate emphasis on custodial sentences is both expensive and ineffective, with political rhetoric along such lines doing little to protect the public, while alienating further those in most need of better integration into society, and making the rehabilitation of offenders more difficult."
Announcing themselves as the newly formed Independent Probation Alliance, and noting that probation wasn't mentioned once in Grayling's speech, all the signatories are well respected voices within the criminal justice field who will no doubt become a little more vocal as the fight for the future of probation and common sense gathers pace.