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January 26, 2007 - The First Post (UK)

'Tough' New Labour Bends To Tabloid Will

Britain's Jails Are Overflowing Simply To Keep The Voters Happy, Says Robert Chesshyre

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

When Derek Williams, convicted paedophile, was shown on TV leaning back in his armchair, smirking at the camera and telling the world that he was 'lucky' not to be in jail, the Home Office -- in the pits for months -- hit rock bottom. Surely, ministers and civil servants must have said, it can't get worse.

Well, it just did. And, it can be fairly added, they have no one to blame but themselves.

The immediate cause of Mr Williams's unexpected liberty was a letter sent by Home Secretary John Reid to judges urging them to go easy on jailing people.

'House full' signs have been posted, and the judge, John Rogers, told Williams that he was bound to observe the 'current sentencing climate'. His hands were tied.

The reason why jails are full is that New Labour has for electoral advantage pursued a policy of 'tough on crime' throughout its term of office.

There are 20,000 more people locked up now than in 1997.

Are we really that much more wicked? Or is it that -- from Jack Straw, via David Blunkett to John Reid -- this Government has believed that there are votes in locking people up?

Of the three groups in jail -- the bad, the mad and the sad -- there are so many of the 'mad' and the 'sad' that there is insufficient room left for the 'bad'.

Britain heads the western European prison league table with, as one might expect, twice as many inside as in some Scandinavian countries, but also far more -- proportionately -- than France, Germany and Italy.

Whatever lawyers and politicians say about judicial independence, it is politicians who make the weather.

Every magistrate responds to the prevailing climate, justifying jail terms with the thought 'the public would expect nothing less'.

In this context, the 'public' is shorthand for the tabloid papers and a craven government terrified of the populist press.

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