Straw says courts are too soft

Law and order: Shadow Home Secretary attacks rise in acquittals
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The Independent Online


The criminal justice system is too soft on criminal defendants, Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, said yesterday during Labour's latest attack on the Conservatives' law and order record.

Publishing an analysis of falling conviction rates in England and Wales as a proportion of recorded instances of six of the most serious crimes, Mr Straw said: "I think there is no doubt that the balance has swung too far in favour of the defendant."

He also gave his unequivocal backing to repeal of the so-called "50 per cent" rule, under which the Crown Prosecution Service must be satisfied that a conviction is more likely than not before a case is put before the courts.

The rule meant the CPS was "second-guessing what the courts should be doing", Mr Straw said. He called for a return to the previous system, in which prosecutors had to be satisfied there was an arguable case to answer. "If you did that a lot more offenders would be likely to go to court and in my judgement a lot more would now be being convicted as well," he said.

Mr Straw highlighted the increased acquittal rate in 1994 - 60 per cent - compared with 1986-87, when the CPS began work, when it was 50 per cent.

According to Mr Straw's analysis, entitled You're not safe with the Tories and compiled from Home Office criminal statistics, convictions and cautions as a percentage of recorded woundings or other acts of endangering life have fallen from 29 per cent in 1980 to 17 per cent in 1994.

For rape there was a fall from 37 per cent, or one in three, to one in 11. For aggravated burglary there was a fall from 36 per cent to 10 per cent, 24 to 9 per cent for robbery and 23 to 9 per cent for arson. The percentage of convictions or cautions for recorded burglaries has dropped from 9 per cent, or 1 in 11, to 3 per cent, or 1 in every 33.

Mr Straw confirmed Labour's backing for the current parliamentary Bill providing for advance disclosure of defence evidence.

Later, in a Government debate on policing in London, Mr Straw told the Commons that the existing criminal justice system did not deal with the disorder on the streets and apparently petty crime which was the cause of so much of the public's concern over crime. "As loutish behaviour and disorder on the streets has increased so too, rationally, has people's fear of crime."

He called for clearer laws on when young criminals could be brought before the courts, condemning "ludicrously complicated" secure accommodation rules for young offenders. He added: "Despite the reduction in the number of cases coming before youth justice courts, the delays are getting worse."