The right to jury trial is a crucial safeguard at the heart of criminal justice. It ensures that the individual is judged by fellow citizens, not the state's appointed representatives. The Government's proposal to restrict this precious right as a cost-cutting exercise just as the Human Rights Act is due to come into force is too great an irony to bear.
Although details are unclear, the Government seems to be proposing to give the police powers to forcibly drug test anyone they've arrested. It is debatable whether, in practice, this will be confined to persistent offenders who steal to feed their habit, or whether the powers might find a wider application. But even if confined to the target group, blood and urine testing is necessarily intrusive. Greater coercive measures may get more people on to woefully under-funded treatment programmes, but coercion will never provide the motivation necessary for a successful treatment outcome.
If the terrorism measures go through, then individuals suspected of terrorist offences would have fewer rights than other criminals. It is wrong in principle to have a twin-track criminal justice system. It is also difficult to accept that those motivated by political or religious factors when they commit crimes should be penalised more heavily than those who commit crimes for greed or revenge or in anger. The anti-terrorism laws have led to some of the worst human rights abuses in this country over the last 25 years, contributed to miscarriages of justice and led to the unnecessary detention of thousands of innocent people, most of them Irish.
Contrary to what the Government repeatedly tells us, the erosion of individual rights is not an approach which is genuinely tough on either crime or, more importantly, on its causes. It is a pale substitute for the political imagination which the real solutions would require.
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