Comment

The police should focus on real crime, not punishing people for mingling

The public would far rather crimes did not happen in the first place or were properly investigated when they did

Few areas of public life have been tinkered with more than the criminal justice system. There have been countless white papers, consultations and legislative measures over the past 25 years, all promising a crackdown here or tougher punishments there. The latest published yesterday foreshadowed a “smarter approach to sentencing”, an ambition with which few would quibble.

It will mean that serious offenders, such as child abusers or sexual predators, will have to serve two thirds of their sentence rather than half. Many people might still wonder why they cannot serve the whole term handed down but elements of early release and parole have long been built into the regime. So-called “honesty in sentencing” has often been promised but rarely achieved, nor has an effective approach to rehabilitation, which the white paper also presages but which is not feasible in current circumstances.

Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, said the white paper proposals fulfilled the Government’s manifesto promise and were designed to “keep the public safe from harm”. But Covid has wrecked all political calculations. In the criminal justice system there is now a backlog of thousands of cases because trials have been delayed. These need to be sorted out before another sentencing reform is introduced. Arguably, instead of expending effort on promulgating new legislation, ministers should get the current laws to work more effectively.

Moreover, when it comes to protecting the public, people would far rather crimes did not happen in the first place or were properly investigated when they did. Over the summer, the country’s cities have seen a surge in youth crime, much of it by violent offenders preying on others for money and possessions. Yet the police seem to be doing little to get on top of this, any more than they now routinely investigate burglaries. The likelihood of getting caught is the greatest deterrent, which is why the recruitment of more officers is so important.

But they must also be properly deployed. The public will not understand how the offending that many of them encounter on a day-to-day basis can be allowed to go almost unpunished while the police are sent forth to punish families for the sin of meeting their relatives. Mr Buckland, and Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, should fret less about friends “mingling” and more about real crime.