Since the time of Charles Dickens, prisons in Britian have long been an issue.
It has been considerably over 100 years since Dickens wrote his masterpieces. With his father having been jailed for debt, Dickens himself saw appalling issues with prisons first hand, and the shortcomings of the criminal justice system. In his books, Dickens took every opportunity to bring such injustice vividly to life.
In 2017, Dickens’ father would not have been jailed for debt. But Dickens would have recognised the failings of criminal justice and the prison service that still remain – although updated for the modern age.
Amidst such failings, earnest reformers, Civil Servants, “experts” and similar have all weighed in on the causes and solutions of issues in British jails. Even as recently as 2016, the government of the day set out yet another solution for the prison service. Indeed, the prison service has long been the downfall of many a Minister in either the Home Office or Ministry of Justice.
One key issue often mentioned is overcrowding. Britain’s (often) Victorian era prisons had a population of 40,000 in 1990. Those same prisons now have a population in excess of 80,000. Obviously, a key method to tackle issues in prisons is to reduce the number of prisoners. One accusation levelled against the criminal justice system is that sentences are often too long, and too readily imposed. As such, if sentences could be reduced – then there would be less prisoners.
Veteran Conservative MP Ken Clarke (MP for Rushcliffe since 1970) saw himself removed as Justice Secretary amidst proposals to cut prison numbers, which included reducing sentences. Michael Gove MP saw little sucess himself in this regard. Calling upon his successor last November to take urgent action to reduce prison numbers, he admitted to his own lack of action; “[it is] an inconvenient truth – which I swerved to an extent while in office – that we send too many people to prison. And of those who deserve to be in custody many – but certainly not all – are sent there for too long.” Current Justice Secretary Liz Truss MP has herself now entered the debate – by refusing to reduce prison sentences.
For this, Ms Truss is to be applauded. Whatever the very real issues with the prison service, and whatever part sentencing plays in those issues – it is not for Government, or a politician, to interfere with judicial sentencing. The nature of the British judical and legal system is that judges should be able to sentence convicted offenders before them, in a manner they deem appropriate, without external Governmental interference. In some cases, sentences have been referred to Justice Ministers, on various grounds; but the principle still stands firm that politicians, however well intentioned, have little or no democratic right in interfering with sentencing.
Admittedly, the issue of whole life terms has been debated in various places – including Parliament – due to human rights concerns. As such, whole life terms has entered the political arena. Aside from that, there are judical guides and reccommendations regarding sentences. Those, however, are guides mainly determined by the judiciary and criminal justice system, by bodies such as the Sentencing Council – not by politicians.
This ultimately returns to a key theme of democracy. In an open democracy, there is an independent judiciary, ready to uphold the law, and even prepared to call the Government to account. Government should not be able to interfere with the deliberations and decisions of judges. Judges apply the law as it stands – and do not carry out government agendas. Although many legal matters might involve a matter of legal policy – those policies are not government or Civil Service policies. An independent judiciary is there to impartially uphold the law, without risk of justice being interfered with by government.The British Judiciary has a long and proud heritage of fiercely defending that independence – and in doing so have often been a thorn in the side of the government of the day. Today, that principle still remains strong.
With that democratic concept of upholding an independent judiciary – judges need to be able to sentence prisoners was they see fit, and with the needs of public safety in mind – not government statistics on prison numbers, or Civil Service policy documents. Although admittedly well intentioned, and perhaps a positive method to tackle the issues in prisons – a policy to reduce prison sentences is undemocratic, and contrary to having an independent judiciary.
Quoting from the speech Ms Truss gave when she rejected the policy, “We all agree it is desirable to have a lower prison population but it has to be for the right reasons … Public protection is paramount which means managing the prison population in a safe and sustainable way.”
The Magwitch of today would still be spending a long time behind bars. Today, however, it is not because he was involved in circulating fake money with an accomplice, but rather because of democratic principle.