Venables, Chindamo and the ‘arms race’ filling jails
Documentary maker Richard Symons exposes a poisonous relationship between tabloid editors and politicians
When criminologist Roger Graef was advising the government on criminal justice policy, Justice Minister Jack Straw asked him what their priority should be. Graef said: "Reduce the prison population." Straw replied: "I completely agree, but the Sun would have us for breakfast."
The exchange illuminates the state of the criminal justice debate in Britain - or lack thereof. It has become nothing less than an "arms race" between the tabloid press, which sees crime reporting as an effective way to sell more papers, and politicians desperate not to be seen to cede the "tough on crime" moral high ground to their opponents.
The result has been a doubling of our prison population in little more than a decade and a widespread misconception that violent crime has risen.
This weekend, we saw the latest example of the tabloids' outrage at the early release of a high-profile young criminal. Learco Chindamo, now aged 29, has served 14 years of the life sentence he received as a 15-year-old for stabbing to death headmaster Philip Lawrence outside a London school in 1995.
Chindamo's life sentence "tariff" expired last January and after a staged release, he faces a parole hearing which could see him freed within weeks.
Needless to say, the tabloids are revolted, the Mail on Sunday labeling Chindamo a "thug" in its online edition, and the News of the World, under the headline "sickening crime", inviting its readers to vent their anger. Sure enough the first comment posted was:
life should mean life
this man is killer
then let him rot in jail for the rest of this life.
But the 'arms race' is still best exemplified by the reaction to the abduction, torture and murder of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993.
The Sun, which was as outraged as the toddler's mother at the 10 years handed out by the court to the two ten-year-old killers, petitioned the Home Secretary for a longer sentence and in an unprecedented move, Michael Howard intervened, extending it to 15. But not before Tony Blair, then shadow home secretary, had coined the slogan "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" – and swept the crime agenda from under the Tories' feet.
Earlier this month – 17 years on - Jon Venables, one of Bulger's murderers, was recalled to prison for breaking the terms of his parole, and the 'arms race' was back in full swing - the tabloids asking why he was ever released in the first place, and politicians making soothing noises in sympathy.
It doesn't matter that the politicians agree with the experts, knowing the current situation is unsustainable, ineffective and against the public interest. It doesn’t matter that Britain has the highest per capita prison population in Western Europe – and yet re-offending rates are as high as 90 per cent. It seems we have learned nothing from the past.
This month, politicians and officials from the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and almost every criminal justice organisation attended a screening of our documentary, The Fear Factory. The film (see a clip from it above) is heavily critical of the government's youth justice policy, with particular reference to the Bulger murder and the way it was handled by the press and politicians.
Venables was recalled to custody the day after our screening and the ensuing media frenzy could not have illustrated our point better.
When we interviewed former Sun deputy editor Chris Roycroft-Davis for The Fear Factory, he was refreshingly straightforward with us over the press's priorities: "I don't know that a newspaper has a responsibility to educate or to lead. A newspaper has a duty to its shareholders".
The position of the politicians in the arms race is much less clear-cut. Rather than make a moral case for rehabilitation of the suspect, Jack Straw opted for the 'my hands are tied' defence to demands for information on why Venables was recalled.
The public has a right to know, he said - but not yet: "We mustn't risk prejudicing a fair trial." He has learned from both the voter-friendly intervention of Michael Howard and his subsequent humbling. After increasing the sentences of Bulger's killers he was slapped down by the House of Lords for "playing to the gallery".
Straw chose to reinforce his 'tough on crime' credentials when the children's commissioner, Dr Maggie Atkinson, recommended raising the age of criminal responsibility. Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger, called for Atkinson’s sacking and a spokesperson for Straw's department said: "We do not intend to raise the age of criminal responsibility. It is not in the interests of justice, of victims or the young people themselves to prevent serious offending being challenged.
"Custody for under-18s is always a last resort and is only used for the most serious, persistent and violent offenders".
This is untrue: serious and violent offences by youths under 14 have dropped to 60 per year. But as a result of Bulger, and the age of criminal responsibility being effectively lowered to 10, for the last three years Britain has sent 500 children aged between 10 and 14 into custody for "non-violent or serious offences".
The government may lay blame for this sentencing with our independent judiciary. But judges can only choose from what the government has made available when it comes to sentencing. In 'tough on crime' UK there's nothing like the alternative programmes you'll find in Scandinavia for dealing with young offenders, so a judge may well opt for custody rather than a community or suspended sentence.
The Conservative Party's contribution to the law and order debate in general has been predictably tabloid-friendly. The British crime survey, which was trusted by previous Conservative governments as well as the current Labour one, shows violent crime has fallen by 41 per cent since 1997. But Tory leader David Cameron has never forgotten the hiding he took when Labour and the tabloids painted him as a "hug-a-hoodie" kind of guy.
Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, claimed in February that violent crime had risen by 70 per cent. After much criticism, he came up with a new figure, suggesting violent crime had increased by 44 per cent – a figure described as misleading by the UK Statistics Authority. It seems nobody – least of all those who wield power - wants to believe that crime may have fallen.
In fact, the public perception of various kinds of crime is consistently eight times higher than that actually recorded. The media-political 'fear factory' is as efficient now as in 1993.
When we interviewed Dominic Grieve, the shadow minister for justice, for The Fear Factory, he claimed crime had risen since Labour came to power in 1997, offering no statistics to back up his position. A Tory three-line whip later prevented him from attending our screening and he has since refused interviews regarding his contribution.
If there is hope, it lies in the future, after the general election. Dr Atkinson's office told us they intend to raise the issue of increasing the age of criminal responsibility at a later date. Unfortunately we cannot hope to have that debate during a general election campaign. It seems the Tories are as scared of crime as the general public – except that, unlike the public, they have good reason.
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