I hope officials in the Ministry of Justice managed to get a decent break over Christmas – they are certainly in for a very busy year. Crime and justice featured heavily in the Conservative manifesto and was given impetus by the controversies that surfaced about why the London Bridge attacker and the serial rapist Joseph McCann were free to carry out their crimes. This is an issue with which prime minister Boris Johnson is personally engaged: it is a matter of public record that his partner Carrie Symonds was one of the victims of John Worboys and played a crucial role in getting a Parole Board decision to release him overturned.
Longer prison sentences for the most serious offenders; a “root and branch” review to open up the workings of the parole system (something I personally welcome); a new victims’ law; 20,000 more police; and 10,000 extra prison places are certain to be early priorities. But this is not the whole picture.
As mayor of London, Johnson supported serious offender rehabilitation initiatives. Other ministers and some of the new intake of Conservative MPs have similar form. Investment in new prisoner education services, employment programmes and youth services are also promised.
Structural and possibly constitutional change are in the manifesto too. Rumours abound that responsibility for prison and probation is to be given back to the Home Office. There will be a Royal Commission on the criminal justice process and, perhaps most significantly, a “Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission” to look at the broader aspects of the constitution including the relationship between government, parliament and the courts.
All of this comes on top of a system under severe pressure. The increase in prisoner numbers will occur much faster than prison places can be built, for instance. Prisons are already facing an “enduring crisis” according to the Commons Justice Committee. The criminal justice system as a whole is “defective and dysfunctional”, according to the chief inspector of constabulary. Legal aid cuts have caused “serious difficulty” for the courts system, according to outgoing Supreme Court president Lady Hale.
Here are two lessons from the last decade that might help ministers and officials.
First, there have been seven justice secretaries in last nine years, each with their own polices and priorities. This was a recipe for chaos: stability at the top is desperately needed.
Second, the criminal justice system is just that – a system. Pump demand into the front end of the system through more police and longer sentences without increasing capacity further down the line and pressure will build to bursting point. You can’t fix one part of the system in isolation. It needs a system wide approach. Good luck!