From March until 7 May, the Mile End Institute will invite experts from QMUL and beyond to contribute ideas, analysis and commentary on the 2015 UK General Election. In this post, Professor Sean McConville scrutinises the crime and justice policies in the Plaid Cymru manifesto.
2 April 2015
Apart from the emphasis on devolution and localisation there is nothing new on crime and justice in Plaid Cymru’s manifesto. It is feel-good thinking, rather than tough and clear policies.
In essence, the crime and justice measures outlined in the manifesto are a straight application of Plaid Cymru’s core policy of ever greater devolution to policing, prosecution, courts and prisons and probation. But showing that local control leads to greater effectiveness and better outcomes is a great deal more difficult than putting together a wish-list which would be familiar to many practitioners in the field.
It is, for example, motherhood and apple pie stuff to propose that criminal justice professionals be trained not to ignore the victim. There are serious questions to be answered regarding how, in what context and with what resources, victims’ needs should be acknowledged.
Ways of addressing the victims’ needs could be simple – such as informing them of the outcome of an investigation or court case – or complex and resource-intensive, like social and psychological support. If Plaid Cymru want the latter, they will need to decide who will deliver it, given that social work and probation services are already fully stretched.
There is no one, no government, which would dissent from the proposition that prevention is better than cure – in criminal justice as elsewhere. The question – and it is constantly asked – is how to do this. It is hard to see how greater localisation of agencies will provide answers any more effectively than the present distribution of powers.
Likewise, it is implausible to claim that devolved criminal justice could come up with a better sentencing structure. These powers were devolved until relatively recent times, and the resultant disparity in sentencing proved intolerable. To address the difference in sentences between substantively similar crimes, the Sentencing Guidelines Council was established in 2003, and later replaced by the Sentencing Council for England and Wales in 2010.
Plaid Cymru – like many others – likes the idea of restorative justice, but does not face up to the fact that its practicality is extremely limited. It requires an identifiable victim who is willing to cooperate in the process, an equally willing perpetrator, a skilled facilitator, time and support facilities. This is and will always be a marginal aspect of criminal justice, because of the narrow range of crimes to which it could be applied.
The party would get more support for its argument that short sentences have little effect on reoffending, even though they do provide the public with some relief when prolific offenders are locked up. The problem is that probation and all other non-custodial means of dealing with offenders need sanctions to ensure compliance, and that can only be the threat or fact of custody.
The manifesto joins many others in saying that prison should be used more constructively. Poor literacy and lack of basic living skills are fairly constant companions of persistent petty offending, as are the abuse of alcohol and drugs.
The closure of magistrates’ courts in Wales has undoubtedly caused inconvenience and hardship, and there is no reason why a number of premises could not be used for hearings, as Plaid Cyrmu suggest. Whether this would have an impact on costs is debatable, since it is the services of professionals, and of the whole back-room apparatus of courts, which are the costly items.
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.
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