Leading Article: A sacrificial crime policy

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The Independent Online
MARGARET Thatcher's accusation that the Government is prone to sway on the tides of opinion found a resounding confirmation in Michael Howard's speech yesterday. Public anxiety about rising crime is real, and justified: it renders 'the law and order party' vulnerable to acute political embarrassment. These circumstances, which would place any Tory Home Secretary under severe pressure, make it all the more important for the helmsman to keep a cool head. Sadly, Mr Howard yesterday showed more interest in tying up alongside the party's right wing than in mooring himself to a convincing strategy for reducing crime.

His policy seems to have three main aims: to clear offenders from the streets, prevent criminals from hiding behind the law and improve the ability of the police to contain and convict terrorists. All are necessary and popular objectives, but in every case superficial solutions will create as many dangers as they solve.

The growing number of teenagers who contemptuously mock the law is indeed frightening. But, as the House of Commons home affairs select committee found earlier this year, only a minority of young offenders go on to make crime their careers: cautions and non-custodial punishment deter most of them from going 'pro'. It is not only impractical to threaten them indiscriminately with instant incarceration, but also counter-productive: most teenage offenders need to be steered away from their self-destructive peers, rather than locked up and labelled as crime college graduates. Those whose criminal behaviour is drug-related need medical support more than punishment: they would anyway be less likely to slide into violence and extortion if relatively harmless drugs such as cannabis were decriminalised.

Mr Howard's new privately-run

prisons are welcome - but not if their purpose is simply to pack more and more offenders behind bars. That will merely perpetuate the inhumane and overcrowded conditions that have set off a chain of horrifically costly riots. Prison governors taking in fresh convicts should have one over-riding aim: to rehabilitate them so that they can be released with an increasing confidence that they will never appear at the jail gate again. Mr Howard uttered not a word of support for that central purpose of the prison system; he was concerned only to pander to his party's lust for more 'austere' retribution.

Some of Mr Howard's proposals for reforming the system of justice are firmly grounded in sound principle, such as the improved protection of victims, or retrials of nobbled jury cases. But his abandonment of the misnamed 'right to silence' (which really means the right of accused people not to have their silence explicitly held against them) represents the most blatant sacrifice of legal principle to political expediency. His decision to reserve punchline status for that sorry announcement confirmed, above all else, that this Home Secretary was more eager for a few minutes' standing ovation than for the gratitude of a populace crying out for a coherent policy to grapple with crime.