My Lords, a few months ago I was in the Crown Court defending a 23 year-old labourer who had pleaded guilty to a number of dwellinghouse burglaries. He said that his parents were in the iron and steel business: his mother ironed while his father stole. My instructions were to ask the judge for one last chance to avoid prison. I told my client that this time prison was likely because I had already asked for a last chance twice that year. I also happened to be appearing before the same judge who had dealt with the matter previously, so it was not my day.
My client asked anxiously whether I thought the judge would remember him and I replied that he probably would. I asked why he did it. He had a loyal girlfriend and a job and yet he kept getting into trouble. He looked at me sadly and said, “It is like this. I am too easily led by my socio-economic peer group”. I said, “How do you know that?” With a big grin, he responded that his social worker had told him. That day he did 1043 go to prison. Ten minutes after the sentence had been imposed, I went to see him in the cells. He had already worked out his release date and knew that he would have to serve only half the sentence anyway.
I am afraid that that example is only too common in our courts. The general public are fed up with it, in my view. In particular they want protection from serious, dangerous and persistent criminals. They want to have greater confidence in the process, and that is what this Bill is all about. I support the Bill in principle, although I suspect that the Committee stage will be most fruitful and certain matters of detail may need to be addressed, especially in view of the comments made by distinguished members of the judiciary. In view of the excellent speeches made by both them and other noble and learned Lords earlier, I propose to be much shorter than I would otherwise have been.
The Home Secretary said in another place that there could be a number of exceptional circumstances in which judges could exercise discretion not to impose mandatory or minimum sentences. He gave only one example but a rather interesting one. He referred to the case where a defendant had helped the police to bring other serious criminals to justice. It may be a sad feature of our system but without the co-operation of so-called police informants fewer crimes would be solved. I am concerned about this particular matter. At present, a judge can reflect that factor by reducing the severity of his sentence without referring in open court to the fact that the defendant is a police informant, but the Bill proposes that the judge shall state in open court the exceptional circumstances for not imposing the sentence. Some defendants who have assisted, or may consider assisting, the police will be fearful of that fact being revealed in open court because of reprisals. I have no sympathy for these people; I do not plead their cause. But this may reduce the valuable sources of information which are available to the police. I should like the Minister to give this matter some thought.
It has been argued that criminals are deterred mainly by the thought of getting caught rather than the severity of the sentence. Crime detection and prevention are important. It is for that reason that the increase in police numbers, closed-circuit television cameras and the DNA database are welcome. But surely the persistent criminal will not be deterred if he believes that once caught he will receive only light punishment. One regular client joked that before a burglary he always took a bath so thathe could make a clean getaway. He treated the whole matter as a joke. To him, a short prison sentence was really an occupational hazard, just like paying income tax. There is no doubt that the public want more criminals to be caught, but they also want more honesty in sentencing by which I mean that offenders are properly punished.
I am firmly in favour of the proposed mandatory life sentence for second time violent and sexual offenders. A couple of years ago I had the privilege of meeting a very brave and gracious lady: Jill Saward. You will recall that she was raped by two of the three men who burgled her father’s Ealing vicarage in 1986. Her father and then boyfriend were beaten until they were barely 1044 alive. I listened with horror as she told me of some of the terror and trauma that she suffered years afterwards. I believe that the public viewed it as an insult that her attackers were sentenced to just three and five years’ imprisonment each for the rape—less than for the burglary. The public, especially women in this regard, look for a signal that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated.
These proposals do not amount to three strikes and you are out as in America. They are carefully targeted on serious, dangerous and persistent offenders. However, this Bill reflects the American intolerance to crime, and we should make no apology for it. There is no doubt that in America this strong approach to sentencing has reduced crime, and it would continue to do so here.
Critics of the idea that prison works should not ignore the latest reconviction rates which show that 51 per cent. of all prisoners reoffended within two years of being released compared with 55 per cent. of all those given community service orders. That points to the fact that the prison-works concept has some merit behind it.
Less media attention has been paid to the fact that the Bill will mean also an enormous reduction in custodial sentences for fine defaulters; discretion for courts to reveal the identity of young criminals; longer supervision of offenders after their release from prison; and new hospital orders for mentally ill offenders. I welcome all those proposals.
There is no doubt that the Bill has the support of the police and the public. All the broadsheet and tabloid newspapers back the proposals. That is interesting. We often deride the popular press for being simplistic and vulgar, but it is so often an accurate barometer of the nation’s mood. I shall certainly keep taking the tabloids. I apologise for that joke, my Lords. We ignore public opinion at our peril.
The Bill is not about sentencing offenders such as the poor cleaning lady whom I once represented. With a large family and debts, she literally found that grime did not pay. She shoplifted on impulse. It was the first time she had done that. In her confused state, she managed to include among the four small items she stole a free sample. The Bill is not about that type of criminal. It is about protecting the public from dangerous and professional criminals.
The Bill is not the solution to the crime problem, but it could be part of it. Those who criticise it should come up with something better. They should not merely criticise it. We have to face the music even though we may not like the tune—that is, we need to take a tougher line for serious crime. The Bill hits the right note, and, in principle, I support it.