Unlocking Potential: A Matter of Judgement

Unlocking Potential: A Matter of Judgement

Earlier this week, Labour peer Lord Adonis shifted his fire from university bosses to judges. Both are often considered (and consider themselves) to be world class; but Adonis tried to use the large increase in the prison population since the 1990’s to claim that the judiciary were far from that. In a series of provocative tweets, he accused them of sins of commission – pushing up the going rate for offences – and omission- failing to stand up to illiberal government criminal justice proposals and the punitive tabloids.

Various legal tweeters rushed to the judges’ defence pointing out that it was New Labour’s criminal justice legislation which had driven up prison numbers while judges simply and faithfully applied the law as they must. As often on twitter, an interesting debate quickly descended into ridicule and abuse, albeit modest by the standards that prevail. I even got caught up in it myself. Having suggested to Adonis that the Sentencing Council – whose president and chair are senior judges-could have done more to limit prison growth since 2010, I retweeted his take that the Council “has followed the Daily Mail out of fear”. I was told by an Oxford academic that my retweet was fostering misunderstanding and I had an obligation to make clear that Adonis’s juvenile view was manifestly wrong.

Adonis may have been unfair on the Council, although it is arguable that of the matters to which they must have regard when producing guidelines, more attention has been paid to the need to promote public confidence than to the costs and effectiveness of sentences. Indeed I have argued this in a report for Transform Justice. But leaving to one side Adonis’s combative and somewhat disdainful approach, what of his wider point. How culpable have the judiciary been in the matter of the spiralling prison population in England and Wales?

Mike Hough and colleagues’ detailed study of the 71% rise in the adult prison population from 36,000 in 1991 to 62,000 in 2003 found that tougher sentencing – longer prison sentences for serious crimes and more short prison sentences instead of community penalties -came about through the interplay of an increasingly punitive climate of political and media debate about punishment; legislative changes and new guideline judgements; and sentencers’ perceptions of changes in patterns of offending. So everyone’s to blame.

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