Government urged to get tough on offenders

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The Independent Online

The Government must get tough on offenders punished outside of prison to restore the faith of victims in the criminal justice system, a senior adviser claimed today.

Victims and Witnesses Commissioner Louise Casey called on ministers to stop letting criminals who fail to undertake work in the community, or repay fines, off the hook.

She said victims want to see offenders punished and rehabilitated whether they are jailed or ordered to pay fines and undertake other reparation for their actions.

Speaking ahead of a speech to the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) today, Mrs Casey said community payback schemes must be tightened up and made five days a week and called for fines to be better enforced.

And she said the Government must overcome its "squeamishness" about publishing information about what happens to criminals when they are prosecuted, to improve confidence in the courts.

Mrs Casey said: "Victims want people punished and they want them rehabilitated. Victims will be the first to say: 'I don't want this to happen to anyone else.'

"We need to get a lot tougher on punishing people properly in the community before they even move on to where they could be locked up.

"Why fine enforcement is so poorly done, I still do not understand. Fines are written off and not paid.

"The tone that should be set throughout the criminal justice system is that the punishment should fit the crime."

Her comments will be read with interest by the coalition Government, which has set out to shake-up the criminal justice system from the police frontline to prisons and rehabilitation.

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has signalled a greater emphasis on community service and rehabilitation, instead of short prison sentences, in a bid to cut crime rates and save cash.

Mrs Casey made her name as an outspoken public advocate under former prime minister Tony Blair when she served as an antisocial behaviour "tsar". She took her latest role in March.

The role of Victims Commissioner is a formal appointment laid down in law and follows the work of Sara Payne, whose daughter Sarah was murdered by paedophile Roy Whiting in 2000.

Mrs Casey criticised a "criminal's justice system" that places the rights of lawbreakers above others, saying cases will collapse if victims and witnesses are not willing to come to court.

She suggested failing to shake up the system could fuel vigilantism among disgruntled and angry victims who are asked to "step aside" by the state as it prosecutes on their behalf.

She said: "The idea they are at the heart of the criminal justice system is simply not true, if anything they are the poor relation.

"At virtually every stage of the criminal justice system they remain a sideshow compared to the processing of offender or the interests of justice.

"They are a poor relation when it comes to how money is spent, how services are focused and how 'fairness' in the criminal justice system is pursued."

Mrs Casey also said eight out of 10 victims do not want to be contacted with offers of support and called on the Government to focus on the small proportion of serious cases.

Mrs Casey said: "Leaving aside the issue of money, I am not sure every single victim of crime wants to be contacted.

"If someone has their lawnmower stolen, do they need three letters from Victim Support at a time when we are struggling to counsel abused children?"

Mrs Casey added sentencing policy remains opaque and called for better information about appeals and parole hearings.

She said the complaints system for victims who do not feel they have been treated well is "woefully inadequate if not totally invisible".

Mrs Casey said 58 complaints have been made in the past four years, compared to more than 4,500 to the prison and probation ombudsman in the last year.

Justice Minister Nick Herbert said: "I welcome this report and I agree with a great deal of what Louise Casey says.

"Offenders need to know that their actions have consequences, and we need a criminal justice service which never stops thinking about the interests of victims.

"It is unacceptable when fines are unpaid or that nearly half of community sentences are never completed.

"The Government is determined to reform criminal justice, not by ineffective authoritarianism, hollow 'get tough' promises, higher spending or more central control, but through radical reform of policing, probation and prisons, using innovative policies such as payment by results to drive value for money and demand greater accountability for performance."