For once, Mr Straw's idea is not so lunatic after all

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The Independent Online

In a variation of the Mikado's famous phrase, Home Secretary Jack Straw has enunciated a new principle of penal policy: "Let the punishment fit the criminal." In recent years, judicial discretion in sentencing has been hobbled by fixed tariffs for particular offences: so many pounds' fine for this, so many years' tariff for that.

One motivation for this rigidity has been to remove the perception of arbitrariness when offenders receive very different punishments for similar offences. But the attempt to achieve this admirable goal has led to a new problem: no penalty is imposed for a pattern of delinquency.

In the Home Secretary's words, a persistent offender who has been "pitching their criminality at a relatively low level... can survive as a criminal without ever spending any serious time in prison despite the fact that they are offending in a very serious way in aggregate".

The proposed remedy is to combine judicial discretion with a broad variety of available sanctions. To this end, Mr Straw has risked the ridicule of the hard-hearted (see Ann Widdecombe's comments passim) by suggesting the importing of the Continental practice of locking offenders up during the working day, or for nights or weekends. This "lunatic" suggestion, in Ms Widdecombe's words, could actually do a great deal to remove a variety of ills caused by the present system (installed by the government in which the shadow Home Secretary once served).

For example, those who are failing to perform their community service orders could be dragooned by day sentences into performing useful work in prison. There they could be given educative and other rehabilitative assistance to reduce their need to offend again. And one of the principal patterns that lead to a return to criminality, the breakdown of the web of family and community relationships, could be averted. On the other hand, those who continue to refuse to reform their anti-social behaviour could face losing their freedom at nights, then weekends; and, finally, completely.

Filling in the gap between punishment in the community and full-time incarceration will only work if adequate resources are made available for new facilities, staffed by adequately trained officers and teachers who can do something to lift their charges out of the culture of criminality. Nonetheless, this apparent increase in costs could be more than offset by a compensating decline in the number of places needed to house criminals 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Not so lunatic after all.