Johnson’s sentencing plans are ‘pre-election hot air’ – critics

By Flora Thompson, Gavin Cordon and Sam Blewett, PA

Campaigners have branded Boris Johnson’s proposals to lock up violent and sexual offenders for longer as political “hot air” in a bid to win votes.

The Howard League for Penal Reform hit out at the Prime Minister’s comments – saying the idea would not result in real changes to the justice system.

Mr Johnson said dangerous criminals must be taken off the streets and punishments “truly fit the crime” if the public was to have confidence in the justice system as he announced an urgent review of sentencing policy.

Critics warned there was no evidence to suggest longer sentences would reduce crime.

The pledges have fuelled speculation Mr Johnson is preparing for an early general election amid continuing deadlock in Parliament over Brexit.

The charity’s chief executive Frances Crook told PA longer sentences will not work and Mr Johnson “doesn’t seem to understand” how the current justice system works.

She said: “We have excessively long prison sentences already and it doesn’t seem to be keeping us safe.

“What’s coming out of Number 10 is politics but not real life.

“It’s not going to deal with real-life crimes and victims. It’s a lot of hot air.

“(The idea) will create more crime and more victims but they may well get themselves elected.

“Community sentences reduce crime better than prison sentences.

“I have seen politicians trying to whip up a lynch mob mentality for their own benefit before and that does appear to be what’s happening now.”

She said the “serious problem” of the huge numbers of men behind bars for sex offences – mostly against women and children – needed to be addressed but prevention was the answer, adding: “We have more life sentence prisons in England and Wales than any other country in the Council of Europe combined.”

She said giving people a chance to make amends helps them turn their life around and victims want apologies.

Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Wera Hobhouse echoed the views that lengthening sentences simply overcrowds prisons and wastes public money.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, told PA the review needed to start with “facts” and previous reforms already allow the courts to lengthen the amount of time a criminal spends behind bars.

He added: “Stoking up public anxiety with unevidenced assertions is a poor way to start a review that needs to take a dispassionate approach to a complex issue.”

Meanwhile, think tank Reform branded the Prime Minister’s proposals “unevidenced electioneering”.

Director Charlotte Pickles said: “Boris Johnson’s criminal justice reforms are a monumental waste of money.

“His proposed sentencing reforms ignore evidence that shows that longer prison sentences are ineffective at deterring crime or reducing re-offending.

(PA Graphics)

“His unequivocal embrace of stop and search is dumbfounding – research shows it does little to prevent violence.

“Intelligent investment is clearly need, but these pledges are costly election baubles, not a serious attempt to make this country safer.”

The news came as Mr Johnson pledged an extra £85 million for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to help it manage its caseload over the next two years and followed a series of announcements over the weekend in which he promised to “come down hard” on crime.

They included a £2.5 billion programme to create 10,000 additional prison places and the extension of enhanced stop-and-search powers to police forces across England and Wales.

A YouGov poll suggests 74% of 2,153 adults in Great Britain back changes to stop and search.

Prisons policy expert at Manchester Metropolitan University Kevin Wong told PA the Prime Minister’s idea went against the Government’s own findings on re-offending.

He said: “Announcing more prison places as a magic bullet to tackle crime and offending is poor policy and shows scant regard for research evidence.

“The Ministry of Justice’s own evidence about how to reduce re-offending demonstrates it should be tackled by: supporting them get a job and a home; better relations with family and partners and reducing drug and alcohol use.”

Mr Wong, a Reader in community justice and the associate director of the university’s police evaluation and research unit, added: “The money for more prison places would be better invested in making existing prisons safer, reducing overcrowding and expanding rehabilitation and resettlement services such as education, training and accommodation support.”

During a meeting at Downing Street on Monday Mr Johnson told police, probation and prison leaders young people must be prevented from getting on “the conveyor belt to crime”.

He told the roundtable – which included Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick and Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill QC – that “faster justice” was needed but “you cannot just arrest your way out of a problem”.

“You have to address the whole problem and, number one, you’ve got to stop young people becoming criminals,” he said.

The sentencing review – tasked with scrutinising the rules on how and when violent sexual offenders are released from prison – has been told to start work immediately and report back to Number 10 in the autumn, just as the country may be going to the polls.

At present offenders sentenced to 12 months or more serve the first half of their time in prison and the second “on licence” in the community, where they may be subject to recall.

The review will consider whether changes to legislation are needed so that more time is spent in jail.