Top judge in plea for fewer jail sentences

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The Independent Online
The steep rise in the prison population is caused by judges heeding public opinion, but ever more severe sentencing is treating the symptoms rather than the causes of crime, Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, said yesterday.

Ministers should grasp the important task of convincing the public that community service sentences were not a "soft option", Lord Bingham, England's senior professional judge, urged in the annual Police Foundation lecture in London.

"While the present vengeful mood of the public endures, courts will hesitate to make such orders," he said. That was "very unfortunate", because the efficacy of imprisonment was in many cases open to question while absorbing resources that would be better spent on schools and hospitals.

Repeating an earlier plea for a Royal Commission on crime and punishment, Lord Bingham said urgent steps needed to be taken to restore the credibility of community service. "It is highly desirable that the sentence should be one of community service in any case where such a sentence would provide adequate punishment and protection."

The Lord Chief Justice said the increase in the jail population was not explained by any recent increase in sentencing powers. "I have no doubt that it is related to the pressure of public opinion."

He said he accepted that judges must have regard to the "primitive instinct" of retribution to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system. But offenders re-entered society at some point. The offender may, as a result of his experience in confinement, be even more dangerous than he was before. Research findings showed that the prison sentencing had a very small impact on general levels of crime.

There was a "tabloid tendency" to dismiss efforts to rehabilitate as a way of allowing offenders to escape the punishment they really deserved, Lord Bingham said. But schemes around the country had proven success.

The typical offender was male, of low intelligence, addicted to drugs or alcohol, with a family history of parental conflict, lack of supervision, erratic discipline, and emotional physical or sexual abuse, he said. "These considerations do not of course excuse or justify crime. But [they] do help to explain the commission of crime, and those who urge the imposition of ever more serious sentences as a solution to the great and growing problem of crime should pause to ask whether they are treating the symptoms rather than the disease."