Leading Article: The wrong way to fight crime

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The Independent Online
Crime is one of the most important social issues in Britain today. Fear of violence, alongside anger at unsolved burglaries and theft, are undermining public confidence that the Government, the judiciary, the police and the prison service have got the problem under control.

Yesterday's row between the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, and Michael Howard over sentencing can only compound that disillusionment. This battle looks like buck-passing: the Home Secretary blames the judges for being too soft on criminals, while Lord Taylor has accused the Home Secretary of endlessly changing the law on sentencing, to ill-effect and with scant regard for justice.

Yet neither figure offers a workable blueprint for cutting crime. We are, whatever the outcome of this week's debate, stuck with a system that does not detect many criminals and which fails to punish them in a way that prevents most from reoffending. In short, the conflict between Lord Taylor and Mr Howard is largely irrelevant to the concerns of most of us.

The key issue of contention is Mr Howard's plan to introduce mandatory life sentences for repeat rapists and other violent criminals, along with tough minimum terms for persistent burglars and drug dealers.

On Wednesday night, Lord Taylor rightly criticised the proposals on practical rather than constitutional grounds. Mandatory sentences reduce the discretion of judges to make the punishment fit the criminal. They mean an offender is unable to cut his sentence by entering an early guilty plea. More defendants will fight charges to the bitter end, further clogging up the courts.

A mandatory life sentence for repeat rapists may persuade some that they might as well kill the victim, the only witness to their crime, since a murder will not increase their sentence. The last, and perhaps most devastating, criticism by the Lord Chief Justice is that tougher sentences do not cut crime in general. Better detection, rather than harsher sentences, is the answer, he says.

It is refreshing to hear judges joining the policy debate about how to tackle crime provided, as Lord Taylor accepts, they acknowledge Parliament's right to decide the law. The Lord Chief Justice's comments should not be dismissed as whingeing from the judge's trade union leader. Mr Howard should take the objections into consideration before publishing his White Paper on criminal justice. Tougher mandatory prison sentences may appeal to public opinion, but if they are ineffective, or indeed make crime worse, they are an expensive indulgence.

The Home Secretary should also think carefully before he weighs in with yet further reforms of the criminal justice system, which has, as Lord Taylor says, been overburdened with legislative initiatives. Overhasty reforms - notably those in the early Nineties that made sentencing more lenient - have had to be reversed.

The judges and the Home Secretary must do more than squabble if they are genuinely to address public concern about crime. They must think up new ways of dealing with offenders. Innovative punishment in the community, shaming people into changing their behaviour, might be effective. Until Mr Howard and his judicial colleagues tell us how they can cut recidivism, rows about sentencing will be dismissed as a distraction from the real issues.