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School of Law

Professor Seán McConville calls for Royal Commission on the penal system

Our penal system is dangerously dysfunctional and only a Royal Commission can fix it, according to a new report from from Professor Seán McConville and Sir Louis Blom-Cooper.

prison bars

In The Case for a Royal Commission - published today - the authors contend that UK penal policy no longer serves the public interest and ignores evidence of falling crime rates.

According to Seán McConville, expert in penal policy and Professor of Law at Queen Mary University of London: “Our politicians cannot deal with penal policy in a rational way. Evidence-based discussions fall victim to partisan rants, rituals of finger pointing and recurrent spirals of dishonesty.”

In today's Guardian, Professor McConville said: 

"Between 1992 and 2013 the incarceration rate in England and Wales rose from 90 to 148 prisoners per 100,000 of population. Remarkably, this increase occurred during a period of falling crime. The Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that in 2013-14 there were 7.1 million criminal incidents. This was the lowest since the survey began in 1981, and a drop of 16 per cent in just one year. Yet in the three decades of the survey courts have become more likely to resort to imprisonment, and the average custodial sentence has increased."

"And those who pass through the prison gates will stay for longer. The proportion of the prison population serving a life or indeterminate sentences has risen from nine per cent in 1993 to 19 per cent in 2013. The number of prisoners serving life sentences has increased from 3,000 to 13,000," said Professor McConville.

In their report, published by Waterside Press, the authors make the case that policy based on evidence cannot compete with the fiercely partisan nature of current political debate, and a media diet of hard cases and spurious campaigns.

According to Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, a longstanding and leading member of the Bar, academic and author: “We accept that politicians find themselves in a policy bind, from which there is no electable escape. Thus we offer the solution of an independent Royal Commission, which should be formed by cross-party agreement immediately following the next general election.”

Sir Louis and Professor McConville accept that the appetite for costly, lengthy and unwieldy inquiries is limited. They set out the parameters of an effective investigation which would satisfy both the public mood and constrained national purse:

  • Tight terms of reference, and appoint experienced chair and professional secretariat
  • A non-negotiable two-year delivery time
  • Severely limiting the taking of verbal evidence
  • No expensive and time-consuming visits of inspection and overseas trips
  • Only those who have unquestionable expertise or direct experience to present evidence

According to Professor McConville, the Royal Commission could help set the direction of penal policy for a generation.

“If the addictive but always short-term advantages of partisan policy-making can be set aside, and if evidence-based options can be examined dispassionately and authoritatively, there is every chance that we will be able greatly to further the public good by constructing and implementing a humane, cost-effective, and sensible penal policy. And if not now, when?”

The report will be launched on Tuesday 18 November 2014, at the Inner Temple.

About Professor Seán McConville

Seán McConville is Professor of Law and Public Policy at Queen Mary University of London. He has published widely on law, politics, imprisonment and penal affairs and has taught, researched and advised legislatures, governments and advisory bodies on both sides of the Atlantic. During a ten-year residence in the USA he took part in high-profile prison litigation in several states. His book, Irish Political Prisoners 1920-1962: Pilgrimage of Desolation (Routledge, 2013), continues his study of politically-motivated offenders. The final volume of his ‘Irish trilogy’ will bring his account of Irish political prisoners and their part in Irish politics and Anglo-Irish relations up to the Good Friday Agreement.

Law at Queen Mary University of London

The School of Law has as its central focus the role of law and its institutions in contemporary international society and it is divided into two organisational units: the Department of Law and the Centre for Commercial Law Studies (CCLS). The School of Law at Queen Mary University of London has been ranked 3rd in the UK and 1st in London in the Guardian University Guide 2015 subject league tables.



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