Can Corbyn’s radicalism extend to criminal justice policy?

Corbyn’s focus on protecting victims of national insecurity may be a means of leading criminal justice policy in a more progressive direction. 

Emma Bell
13 October 2015

Flickr/ Ray Forster. Some rights reserved.If the Labour Party is indeed now a ‘threat to our national security’ and to ‘your family's security’, as David Cameron tweeted following Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the party leadership last month, we would expect a complete reversal of the tough stance towards criminal justice issues that characterised the New Labour years and beyond. Yet, there is much to suggest that a considerable degree of continuity may mark Labour’s policy under Corbyn.

Lord Falconer, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Lord Chancellor and, briefly, Justice Secretary under the Blair administrations from 2003 to 2007, has remained in his post as Shadow Justice Secretary (assumed in May 2015). Falconer notably supported Blair’s counter-terrorism policies and defended the government against judicial criticism of tough legislation in this area. He also defended control orders, the creation of a new offence of indirect incitement to terror introduced by the Terrorism Act 2006, and he refused to contemplate reforming the mandatory life sentence for murder, much criticised by the Law Commission.

Similarly, there is unlikely to be much radicalism from Andy Burnham, another veteran from the New Labour era, who now occupies the post of Shadow Home Secretary. Burnham repeatedly voted in favour of counter-terrorism legislation, notably the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects provided for in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill 2001, and, more recently, supported the coalition government’s legislation permitting the mass retention of communications data.

Corbyn himself seems to echo the last Labour manifesto on crime and justice in his concern for the victims of crime. The manifesto promised to develop a justice system that ‘puts victims first’ and promised to enact a ‘Victim’s Law’ which would ‘give victims a voice and entitlements to minimum standards of service’. Corbyn has used parliamentary question time to ask the government when it intends to implement the European Directive on the rights, support and protection to be offered to victims of crime, and asked if Victims’ Impact Statements, introduced under Blair, will be made mandatory during criminal proceedings at Crown Court. Yet again, there would seem to be considerable continuity with New Labour. It was a disproportionate focus on victims’ rights under the Blair government that led to a zero-sum game being played in which the rights of offenders were to be traded off against those of victims. Victim-centred policies, such as the introduction of Sarah’s Law — widely condemned by criminal justice professionals— appeared to be motivated by populist concerns about proving Labour’s determination to take public concerns about crime seriously.

There is of course a danger that Labour under Corbyn may lapse into populism as the party strives to garner widespread electoral support and prove that it can be trusted on issues of public safety. As Labour bravely embraces migrants, it may be left searching for other scapegoats to blame for Britain’s problems. Yet, the focus on victims may be a means of leading criminal justice policy in a more progressive direction under Labour. Indeed, as Nils Christie famously argued in his famous 1977 article Conflicts as Property, there is a need to restore victims’ rights to participate in the resolution of the conflicts in which they are involved in order to allow victims and offenders to resolve their own conflicts in a way which is most satisfactory to them. Christie’s arguments were extremely influential on the restorative justice movement. The idea of restorative justice was taken up by the Blair governments and Falconer showed some support for these initiatives, particularly with regard to youth justice, but they were essentially state— rather than community-led and backed up by penal sanctions, ensuring that they have never become a progressive alternative to the formal justice system. The state has never renounced its property rights over conflict. It has certainly never recognised offenders’ rights to regain ownership of their own conflicts.

A truly progressive victim-centred policy cannot ignore offenders. It must seek not only to address the wider social causes of offending behaviour but also to ensure that those who cause harm can play a full part in the community. It is also necessary to think about victims in the widest sense possible and not to limit one’s understanding to those who are the victims of the crimes most commonly reported to the police. The Labour Party has already highlighted the need to provide more protection to women and children who are victims of domestic and sexual abuse but it needs to go further and seek to protect victims of white collar crime and victims of state violence. It is encouraging to see that Corbyn has shown concern about deaths in custody, working with INQUEST and tabling parliamentary questions on deaths in custody. Burnham has also shown concern with victims of the Hillsborough disaster, pushing the Blair government to order a second inquiry into the tragedy in 2009.  

Any party serious about defending the rights of victims of crime and social harm ought to passionately defend the Human Rights Act. Falconer promises to be a formidable opponent of conservative plans to repeal perhaps the most positive legacy from the Blair era, describing those plans as ‘appalling’. Defending the rights of victims also entails fighting to ensure that all victims of harm have access to justice. Here again, Falconer has made the right noises. Writing in the New Statesman just before the leadership election, he argued that ‘we must restore access to justice’ by ensuring that legal aid is properly funded. Interestingly, he compared the right to have access to justice to the right to have minimum standards of health case or education provided by the State. Linking these issues together is a good way for the Labour Party to develop a coherent narrative on security, one which is capable of demonstrating the need to develop a common approach to guaranteeing people’s economic, social and physical security.

Reframing the crime debate in this way may allow the party to demonstrate how issues of social and criminal justice are interlinked and to refocus attention away from punishment and towards protection. It would enable criminal justice policy to move beyond a narrow focus on the harms committed by the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society to look at all forms of social harm, whether perpetrated by the state, corporations or individuals. This would have two main effects.

Firstly, it would mean moving away from unnecessarily punitive policies which neither rehabilitate offenders nor protect the public. Corbyn is well-placed to understand the failure of such approaches to offending behaviour, having served on the House of Commons Justice Select Committee from May 2011 to March 2015, visiting many prisons and engaging in lengthy discussions with those involved in the system. The report published in March this year evidences Corbyn’s concerns with the current prison system in the UK, notably regarding overcrowding, self-inflicted deaths, large-scale new prisons and the lack of effective rehabilitative facilities. Highlighting these failures would perhaps help to show the failure of prison in guaranteeing the security of both offenders and the public, opening the way for discussion about genuine alternatives to incarceration. Suggesting a reduction in the use of imprisonment is of course a notoriously tricky area for Labour, leading to allegations that it is ‘soft on crime’. Indeed, when Falconer, as Justice Secretary under the latter days of the Blair government, suggested introducing shorter prison sentences to ease overcrowding, he was lambasted by The Sun.

Yet, refocusing the criminal justice debate on security in the widest possible sense may have a second effect. It may provide a means of moving beyond knee-jerk populism to developing truly popular policies. If we are really concerned about security, then we should be focusing our attention on all sources of insecurity. When we move beyond an obsession with physical security, it becomes obvious that we are all victims of insecurity. All but the very wealthiest suffer from economic insecurity and society as a whole suffers from social insecurity and inequality, as Wilkinson and Pickett so convincingly demonstrated in The Spirit Level. Our priorities should consequently shift to focusing on the wider threats to security, rather than obsessing about the extremely rare violent crimes that are unlikely to befall us. This is not to ignore the reality of harm caused by violent crime or even nuisance behaviour but simply to demonstrate that such harms constitute only a very small part of the picture. Rather than dividing communities between those who are deemed fit or unfit for inclusion, this could be a way of uniting them against the more serious harms that threaten us all. This would constitute a truly radical, popular justice policy, one that would be genuinely capable of guaranteeing the security of communities, individuals and their families. Corbyn has shown significant moral courage in other policy areas. Let us hope he manages to do so with regard to criminal justice.

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