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Maintaining public confidence

In the light of a recent mishap, how public confidence in criminal sentencing can be maintained.

This series has previously dealt with various matters regarding imprisonment (see , What is the purpose of imprisonment? part 2,What is the purpose of imprisonment? part 1, What Rights should Prisoners have? Part 2,What Rights should Prisoners have? Part 1).

For those such as myself who do not approve of capital punishment (and for those who do, for a whole host of reasons both legal and political it is simply never going to happen) it is important that public confidence is maintained in relation to punishment of killers. This must be maintained both in the sense of ensuring that the public are protected from the convicted killer killing again, and that also the punishment given to them is seen to fit the crime. Any failure in this regard is likely to undermine public confidence in the justice system generally. Just because capital punishment is most unlikely ever to return does not mean that it is not vitally important to maintain that public confidence so that the public, or hopefully the vast majority thereof, regard the punishment system for killers as being a reasonably acceptable alternative.

Sentencing generally has to recognise the twin objectives of punishment/deterrence and rehabilitation. This also has to be approached realistically. There are various stages with particular individuals when rehabilitation may stand a fair prospect of success. This will often be early in their criminal career, but there are also other windows of opportunity. It can often be worth putting in the effort and resources to do something about it at that stage. However you will only ever identify the right people to deal with a right and proper allocation of resources if this process of identifying the windows of opportunity is approached accurately. If probation officers when preparing reports for use in sentencing always or nearly always say that a person is at a stage when rehabilitation rather than custody is appropriate, (save in cases where it is obviously hopeless to suggest that, such as either where the sentence is fixed by law or is so serious that obviously the only alternative is a substantial period of custody, for example importing substantial quantities of drugs), then you will simply never get a real opportunity to identify who should be treated as at a critical stage for potential rehabilitation and should both have the opportunity and the relevant resources devoted to them. If you treat everyone as at the right stage then you are effectively depriving courts of any real chance of identifying who is really at that stage.

It is also obvious that there comes a stage when people who are in prison have to be prepared for release. There is simply no point in dumping people back out into the world without having helped prepare them for it. That helps neither the offender nor the public.

At the same time it is very important the public understand what is being done with offenders and why. The justice system will only work in the way it should, and public confidence in the law will only be maintained, if it is seen to operate fairly. If the public come to consider that so far from there being a coherent basis upon which offenders are dealt with and rehabilitated that it is just a question of being "soft" in respect of them, then public confidence in both the law and the system will be dramatically reduced.

Once contempt for the law sets in amongst public than it has corrosive effects upon the system of law generally. Just as in the courts it is vital that justice is not only done but seen to be done, so in relation to the treatment of prisoners must this not only be fair having regard to the public interest (including that of the prisoner) but also be seen to be so. If there is a failure in public comment and presentation this will be damaging if to the public mind what happened seems bizarre even if there is a perfectly logical and fair justification.

Next week we shall look at a particular recent instance which will unfortunately, absent explanation, have served to substantially diminish confidence in the sentencing system.

Michael J. Booth QC