WE ARE A MAGAZINE ABOUT LAW AND JUSTICE | AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO
May 24 2022
WE ARE A MAGAZINE ABOUT LAW AND JUSTICE | AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO

Wouldn’t it be great to hear Labour engage in an adult conversation about our failing, overly punitive justice system?

Wouldn’t it be great to hear Labour engage in an adult conversation about our failing, overly punitive justice system?

Recent Shadow Cabinet interventions firmly nail Labour’s colours to the mast for a regressive criminal justice policy agenda rooted in a punitive mind-set that won’t address the crisis in our justice system, argues Mark Blake.

Every Thursday I work in the prison service alternating between two establishments. I come in as an external contractor working for a respected charity in the field supporting the two jails gathering the views of prisoners from Black, GRT (Gypsy, Romany Traveller) and Muslim inmates. I feed their experiences back to the prison’s staff and leadership teams, hopefully leading to a discourse for positive change.

This work emanated from a recommendation from David Lammy MP’s review into racial inequalities in the criminal justice system  in 2017. I was optimistic when the now Shadow Foreign Secretary was appointed to be Shadow Justice Secretary in 2020. Having carried out a recent substantial review of the CJS that not only highlighted the endemic racism in the system but also in my opinion was clearly making the case for placing fairness at the heart of criminal justice policy Lammy certainly knew the terrain. He was also an advocate for drug policy reform I was enthused by Lammy’s appointment and the hope that a more progressive policy position may emerge from the opposition.

Following last year’s Shadow Cabinet reshuffle Steve Reed MP was appointed as the new Shadow Justice Minister and Yvette Cooper MP was appointed to the Shadow Home Secretary position. It appears highly likely that this will be Labour’s team leading on Criminal Justice for the next general election.

The furore that was caused by the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party’s comments on police use of force in the context of terrorist attacks was interesting to say the least. I guess like a lot of people I couldn’t really understand what coherent point she was trying to make? Armed Police Officers in the midst of a terrorist attack will use lethal force. These are split second, stress laden decisions. This type of intervention by politicians worries me. What is the aim of this? To show Labour is tough on crime?

The new Shadow Justice Minister in a very revealing interview with the Mirror spoke of his personal experience of being robbed at knifepoint (Labour “cared more about criminals than their victims” under Jeremy Corbyn). A horrid and clearly traumatic experience for anybody and Mr Reed deserves sympathy. However my empathy waned when he spoke of understanding people’s feelings for ‘retribution’ from the justice system. I don’t know about you but retribution is the last thing we need more of in our criminal justice system. It doesn’t work for all parties victims, perpetrators and the wider society.

A few weeks ago David Blunkett gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee inquiry into IPP sentences. He said he was sorry for in my opinion one of the biggest violations of basic human rights that I have seen in our criminal justice system. I have sat with many prisoners doing time way beyond what would have been the normal tariff for the offences they were convicted of. The Select Committee heard evidence of the terrible toll and injustice IPP sentences have brought to many prisoners and their families.

Wouldn’t it be great to hear the Labour Front Bench attempt to engage the British public in an adult conversation about our failing, overly punitive criminal justice system. Unfortunately my early optimism has given way to the acceptance that this is very unlikely to happen. I strongly believe a progressive criminal justice agenda would be an asset for Labour as we know crime is intrinsically interlinked with poverty and inequality.

However it’s clearly a minority view on the Labour front bench. Expect more hard line law and order rhetoric over the next two years as we approach the next general election as the government sets criminal justice liberalism firmly in its ‘war on woke’ offensive. Unfortunately I fear Labour will be enthusiastically joining in rather than giving any meaningful alternatives.