The ‘Criminal Justice Lobby’

Is it just me or has Justice Secretary Jack Straw played the moral panic card?

Jack Straw, the justice secretary, today signalled a more punitive approach to prisons by attacking the “criminal justice lobby” for putting the needs of offenders before those of victims.

In a speech on prison policy to the Royal Society of Arts, Straw said it was time to reclaim the “unfashionable” language of punishment and reform and make clear that the justice system is there to serve victims and the law-abiding majority first.

I don’t like this one bit. Don’t forget that this was the party that was supposed to be ‘tough on the causes of crime’ but seems to have forgotten its pledge. It’s also the party which has doubled the number of women in prison, with double the number of babies being born in prison compared with eleven years ago:

The number of children born behind bars has almost doubled since Labour came to power, with new figures showing women prisoners currently giving birth at nearly four a week.

Figures from the Ministry of Justice show that 283 children were born in prisons in England and Wales between April 2005 and July this year, an average of 1.7 a week. But 49 babies were born between April and the beginning of July this year alone, almost four a week, meaning the 2008 total could reach nearly 200 if births continue at the same rate, more than double the 64 prison births recorded in 1995-96 before Labour came to power.

Prison reformers demanded that women should be locked up only in extreme circumstances, saying that keeping mothers and young babies in prison can harm young children and does nothing to cut crime.

And it is precisely such reformers whom Jack Straw is attacking in his speech:

Straw said the problem was that penal reformers had retreated into a “fog of platitudes” about offenders and had forgotten about victims.

Surely the earlier paragraph debunks Straw’s disgraceful, authoritarian attempt to paint penal reformers as only able to think in a binary fashion – either for offenders or for victims. It paints a tragic picture of how the New Labour government has retreated from the idea of crime prevention to a position of advocating the harshest punishment:

The justice secretary said that custody ought to be reserved for the most violent, dangerous and prolific offenders, with a stronger focus on prevention and punishment in the community for the less serious offenders.

And he defended the new “titan” prisons, which he insisted would not be “large warehouses”.

Yet that’s not what’s taking place, as the story above shows. And of course he, alongside his colleague Jacqui Smith, and her ID card project ignores the inevitable ‘function creep’ when it comes to his latest wheeze of ‘titan’ prisons. They will by their existence become what people fear them to be. That he at the very least denies it is (again as with Smith and ID cards) completely fraudulent. And as Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust points out:

“Apart from people who have committed extremely serious or violent offences it is difficult to see how jailing a young mother is going to do anything other than damage her and her baby. The conditions in prisons may no longer be Dickensian but young mothers are still going to jail for the same reasons they were in Victorian times, poverty, debt, addiction and mental illness.”

But of course he’s supported by the usual suspects:

With the experts batting so vigorously on behalf of the criminals, it is heartening that the Justice Secretary is weighing in on behalf both of the victims of crime and the law-abiding majority who frequently feel – with good reason – abandoned by the criminal justice system.

And the implicit message from the Telegraph and explicitly from Straw himself is that being ‘abandoned by the criminal justice system’ means ‘not jailed’. It is as usual New Labour which indulges in the post-9/11 ‘you’re either with us or against us’ argument, when it is entirely possible to support victims as well as case-appropriate sentencing at the same time . You’d think there was a general election on the way…


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