BLOG: Focusing on the victims
The sickening revelations about Jimmy Savile have led to a big increase in the numbers of people coming forward to report unrelated cases of child abuse or sexual assault. This has thrown a spotlight on the whole issue of sentencing and victim support – topics in which I take a particular interest as a member of the Justice Select Committee. They’re also areas in which the government has recently announced welcome new initiatives.
The first is the so-called ‘two strikes and you’re out’ law. Anyone who commits two serious violent or sexual offences will automatically receive a life sentence. The legislation says courts must impose a mandatory life term for the second offence, although judges do have some discretion in certain circumstances. This new rule replaces Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection, or IPPs, under which there was no certainty about the length of the sentence for either the offender or, more importantly, the victim. It’s a much-needed change. Under the open-ended IPPs, victims had no way of knowing when or if their attacker might be released, and the justice system could not plan properly for the rehabilitation of the offender. The ‘two strikes and you’re out’ approach is infinitely preferable because it rectifies the balance between punishment, rehabilitation and victims’ rights.
The second change covers less-serious offences, but which still have a significant impact on their victims. When a criminal receives an out-of-court community punishment, the victim will be allowed to choose the form that punishment will take.
This is a welcome development which, as the Home Secretary has said, gives victims back their voice. Instead of the offender just receiving a standard caution, they can make some pay-back to the community. Importantly, the community can become involved in choosing, from a menu of options, the form that the reparation should take. This is very much in line with the restorative justice principles that I’ve often spoken about, both in Parliament and in this column. It also chimes very well with the public perception that many offences which the system classes as ‘low level’ in criminal terms actually have a damaging impact both on the victims and the local community as a whole. I’m not pretending that the victim’s voice should be the last word – I don’t want a return to an Anglo-Saxon-style punishment system – but it should be part of the mix.
These changes, coupled with last week’s news that the number of Police Community Support Officers in Wiltshire has increased by 19 in the last year, are welcome steps forward. They show the government is serious about proper punishments for offenders and robust protection for individuals and communities who are the victims of crime.
(This is a re-post of my article in the Swindon Advertiser on Tuesday 30th October 2012)