Socialist Worker

Do you want him to be judge, jury and jailer?

Home secretary David Blunkett wants to curb the right to trial by jury and to lock prisoners up for life

Issue No. 1852

CRIME RATES are falling - but that doesn't stop home secretary David Blunkett whipping up hysteria over crime to help him ram through major attacks on civil liberties.

Blunkett faced a revolt by Labour MPs - the third rebellion in as many weeks. Some 34 Labour MPs voted against his attempts to limit the right to trial by jury. He wants to end the right to jury trial in complicated cases or where juries might be intimidated - a potentially unlimited number of trials. The proposals are contained in the new Criminal Justice Bill.

The British Crime Survey, published last month, showed that crime actually fell by 9 percent in 2002. Street crime, the stuff of much tabloid hysteria, fell by 23 percent last year. Yet Blunkett's new bill shows how he responds to the widespread bitterness with New Labour, and hysteria in the right wing media.

His bill is based on dishing out more authoritarian, punitive measures and more scapegoating of the vulnerable. Blunkett has already tagged on a clause to the bill that will set fixed tariff sentences for murder. He wants to end any chance of rehabilitation or parole for good behaviour. For those convicted of some murders, for example the murder of children or terrorist murders, a life sentence will mean life in prison with no chance of ever being released.

Blunkett wants fixed 30-year sentences for those convicted of killing a police officer or a prison warden, or of killing with a gun. And he wants everyone else convicted of murder, even those who are under 17, to be banged up for at least 15 years.

Edward Fitzgerald QC is one of many lawyers, justice experts and campaigners who have condemned his proposals. 'Whole life sentences are a moral disaster. It's inhuman because it excludes all possibility of progress and release,' he said. Blunkett is in danger of making his Tory predecessors look like bleeding heart liberals.

His plans will see a dramatic rise in the prison population, which has already leapt from 40,000 to over 70,000 in the last ten years. Blunkett himself acknowledged that prison doesn't work last year. His Criminal Justice Bill outlines new tough community punishments that could be handed out as an alternative to prison.

But no home secretary, whether Labour or Tory, dares to be seen as 'soft on crime' especially when they are courting the Daily Mail and the Sun. So many more people will be crammed into overcrowded prisons, at huge cost, and New Labour will once again cut away at the civil liberties of us all.

The system is riddled with racism

BLUNKETT'S MEASURES will reinforce the institutional racism that stretches from the top to the bottom of the British justice system. The number of black adults in prison has soared by 54 percent since New Labour came into government.

The Home Office's statistics in March showed black people now make up 16 percent of all those in jail, while they only account for 2 percent of the population. This is because of racism. If you are black, the police are eight times more likely to stop and search you.

Arrests of black people rose by 12 percent last year. From the police through to the magistrates and courts, black people are disproportionately singled out. The situation is even more marked in the US, which has the highest prison population in the world.

A quarter of all black men under the age of 26 are in jail. Some 12 percent of young black men in the US are in prison while just 1.6 percent of white men of the same age are locked up.

When larking about becomes a crime

CLAIRE McCARTHY, policy officer at the Howard League for Penal Reform, spoke to Socialist Worker.

'WE ARE against the new proposals for two main reasons. One is that they are unnecessary. The provisions already exist for people who continue to pose a threat to society to be kept in prison for as long as is necessary.

Secondly, we are against the way the proposals have come out. They have been tagged on to the Criminal Justice Bill at a very late stage. David Blunkett is deliberately trying to sidetrack all the proper procedures for bringing in complicated legislation.

We estimate Blunkett's proposals will double the number of lifers in our prisons, which will increase the huge overcrowding problem. Any further increase in the prison population will make the prisons less safe and less constructive.

Last year there were more prison suicides than ever before. We think this is a direct result of overcrowding. The conditions in our prisons are not what you would expect in a civilised society. The proposals about life sentences will not affect many young people as very few children get life sentences. But we are extremely concerned about young people in our penal system.

We imprison more children than any other country in Western Europe except for Germany. This is because we have an incredibly punitive penal culture which is fuelled by the language used by politicians and the press to talk about kids. They call them thugs, yobs and troublemakers.

This is very clear in the discussion about anti-social behaviour legislation. Anti-social behaviour is actually just larking about. If you are middle class you lark about in your garden or your den. If you are working class and live on a council estate, you don't have a PlayStation 2 and you lark about outside. Now you are being criminalised for behaving like a child.

I think there are indications we are following the US road on criminal justice. About 50 percent of new receptions in US prisons are people who have breached probation orders.

They have been put on probation for some relatively minor offence. They haven't committed any more crimes - they have just failed to do something like meet their probation officer. They are imprisoned for technical breaches of probation orders.

This is happening more in Britain. Probation orders are more rigorously enforced then ever before. In the US they have state jails, federal jails and local county jails. If you include those imprisoned in the county jails there are more than 3 million people in prison in the US today.

Per head of the population, we imprison more people than anywhere else in Western Europe.'

Life in prison - it doesn't add up

94 men, women and children committed suicide in Britain's prisons last year, the highest ever number. Some 140 more had to be resuscitated after suicide attempts.

15 percent of women prisoners had previously been admitted to mental hospitals. The majority of people in prison have drug problems or mental illnesses.

800 percent is the increase in the number of under 15 year olds who have been given custodial sentences over the last ten years. Yet offending by under 18s fell by a fifth between 1992 and 2001.

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Article information

Sat 24 May 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1852
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