Leading article: Punishment, populism and a gap in perception

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The Independent Online

Heavily trailed before its publication, the Cabinet Office review of the criminal justice system met a fate similar to the one that routinely overtakes official crime figures. Its conclusions were sensationalised, "spun" and taken out of context. Thus we were informed that people serving community service sentences would be required to wear brightly coloured tabards identifying them as offenders. High crime areas would be festooned with posters announcing the latest convictions. Community Support Officers would be given the power to exact fines, while a new body would be set up to relieve the overburdened – and over-liberal – Probation Service to make sure that those convicted, but imprisoned, still felt the firm slap of punishment.

Now that Louise Casey's report has actually appeared, we can confirm that all these elements do indeed feature in one form or another. But they are among 32 suggestions, by no means all of which are calculated to appeal to the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade; even fewer will probably see the light of day.

The only measure to which the Government so far appears committed – the Prime Minister advertised his support for it yesterday – is publication on the internet of "crime" maps, to be updated monthly. This information was already available to police; we see no reason why it should not be in the public domain, and many reasons – not least police accountability – why it should. It is unfortunate that it should be the most showy, most illiberal, of Ms Casey's recommendations that drew almost all the attention. But this was only to be predicted, given a government that, even after 11 years, still strives to appear far tougher on crime than on its causes, and the populist media with their insatiable appetite for easy, and punitive, solutions.

But the conundrum the review was designed to address, and many of the problems it identifies are real. There is a wide credibility gap between public perceptions about crime and the facts as reflected in official figures. There are also glaring defects in the police and criminal justice system that could at least be tackled, if not eliminated, relatively quickly. By identifying these – many of them all too familiar to those who have had dealings with the police or the courts, but little appreciated by government – this review has done the unheard majority a big favour.

Take the courts. It is absurd and unacceptable that victims and witnesses should share waiting accommodation with defendants – but it still happens, despite progress in places. Take elderly or ill people who suffer harassment in their neighbourhood and are fearful of going out. Should they not enjoy the same anonymity as a young suspect – for their own protection? And why is it so often left to the police to run activities for young people from existing funds, while local youth services work rigidly nine to five?

What Ms Casey neglects to say is that a good number of the problems her review addresses are of the Government's own making. People distrust official statistics because they have, rightly, learnt to suspect "spin". Well-intentioned members of the public are confused about who to approach when they encounter so-called low-level crime because of the many agencies and go-betweens the Government has created.

The preoccupation with targets is also responsible for much of the red tape that keeps so many of the record number of police officers behind their desks. As for disparities between police forces, ministers have been far too timid to take on this powerful lobby. If they were not aware of public dissatisfaction before, this review leaves them in no doubt.