Whether you are a political animal or, as seems to be increasingly the case, someone who is “less than motivated and engaged” with the political process you can’t have helped noticing that politicians, most of whom seem to be in the former category, are vying for our votes. And, I suspect, you can’t help but hope that, once we have cast our votes on May 7th we don’t end up with a re-run of Christmas: expectation, feverish excitement, much toing and froing ending up with an overcooked, and rather dry looking bird on the table that goes on and on.
The focus of the election campaign in the media is, without doubt, the economy, the NHS, and, in some quarters, our relationship with our neighbours in Europe. It seems a long time since law and order was a dominant theme – think back to the days of the short, sharp shock ( flash incarceration as it’s now called), tougher sentences, whether we should restore capital (and, occasionally, corporal) punishment. Is this because we are no longer worried about crime and criminal justice; is it because we all feel safer and that crime, apart from violent, sexual and cybercrime has been statistically going down over the years? Who knows! What is clear is that all changes in criminal justice affect us all, as anyone can be a victim or witness, and therefore not to be taken for granted and need to be given some consideration as we approach the election.
So, what are the parties saying about this?
Well, the Tories are pledging to build on the reforms on policing they have introduced in the past five years; in particular they are planning to develop the role of the elected police and crime commissioners. Quite how, will no doubt be revealed in due course? They are also promising, and are not alone in this, a Victims’ Law that will enshrine key rights for victims: the right to make a Victim Personal Statement to be read in court before sentencing and at the Parole Board before a prisoner is released; to give all vulnerable victims and witnesses greater opportunity to give evidence outside court; and roll out pre-trial cross- examination for children.
Labour, on the other hand, are promising to abolish the role of police and crime commissioners (as are the Liberal Democrats); so there is some clear water between the main protagonists here., They want to focus on: embedding restorative justice right across the youth justice system; publish a bill in relation to violence against women and girls; appoint a commissioner to set minimum standards in tackling domestic and sexual violence; and widen access to legal aid for victims of domestic violence.
The Lib Dems are focusing on preventing crime by cutting re-offending and by ‘designing out’ opportunities for crime. And they are also promising to prioritise the needs and rights of victims, where crime happens, by introducing a Victims’ Bill of Rights, creating a single point of contact for victims to give early access to information and support. They will also introduce a victims’ right to review progress in the police investigation of a crime and give victims a right to choose restorative justice. The promise also includes an increase in sentencing powers for hate crime.
UKIP, it seems, will aim to: reduce the number of police and crime commissioners to reduce costs; repeal the Human Rights Act, replacing it with a British Bill of Rights; withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights; and make prisoners serve a full sentence.
The Green Party manifesto promises to prioritise tackling sexual and domestic violence; focus on restorative justice to cut crime and reduce the prison population; and oppose the privatisation of the prison service. The Respect party promises to make policing accountable to the community and Plaid Cymru is pledged to abolish police and crime commissioners; introduce a Victims’ Bill of Rights and focus on restorative justice.
So, the choices are clear, at least in the minds of those offering them, for us to make our choices on May 7th. But whichever way you may be inclined to vote, if you are inclined that way at all, what is important, surely, is that some or all of the above can actually be translated into effecting more real and lasting change that will benefit people, real people. It’s easy from time to time, even for those of us who work in the criminal justice arena to see victims and witnesses as somehow detached from our own everyday lives, as though they inhabit some alternative society. All too easy, I’m afraid, until or unless something happens to us or to someone close to us.
Yet the benchmark, the litmus test for any society that aspires to call itself progressive and civilised (and I would hope all political parties could promote that one) is that we do look to the needs of others and how to meet those needs, that we do strive to protect and enhance the lives of the most vulnerable, and that includes those whose lives are blighted by crime. We look to our political leaders, the people who are, once elected, best placed to do this, to turn the words into actions and deliver the goods.