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3 September 2021updated 10 Sep 2021 2:50pm

Why the justice system is broken

While many voters would like to see Colin Pitchfork, who raped and killed two teenagers executed, he will instead be released.

By Louise Perry

I will spare you the awful details of Colin Pitchfork’s crimes and instead give you the crucial dates. In 1983, Pitchfork raped and murdered 15-year-old Lynda Mann; then, in 1986, he raped and murdered Dawn Ashworth, who was also 15. In 1988, Pitchfork received a life sentence. It has recently been announced that Pitchfork will be released this year, after serving 33 years in prison.

A life sentence, therefore, does not mean a whole life spent in prison, even if the majority of the British public think it ought to. “From the point of view of the safety of the public I doubt if he should ever be released,” said Lord Lane, the lord chief justice at the time of Pitchfork’s sentencing. A whole life order, however, was not given to Pitchfork in 1988, and now that his minimum term has expired the Parole Board have been tasked with determining whether he still poses a risk to the public. In June, the board decided that he had met the criteria to be released from prison, albeit under “strict monitoring conditions”. 

“Public safety is our top priority,” said a spokesperson from the Parole Board after the decision received significant backlash. And yet this statement is difficult to reconcile with the board’s record, given that almost one in five murders are committed by someone on parole. 

The Parole Board is not alone in its inadequacy. We also have a Conservative government that talks tough on crime while under-funding the criminal justice system, and a prison system that has proved incapable of reforming sex offenders – when reviewed by the Ministry of Justice in 2017, one treatment programme for sex offenders was found to have led to an increase in reoffending after release. The criminal justice system has five strands to its function: punishment, rehabilitation, public protection, crime reduction and reparation; our system is failing at all of them. 

Alongside my writing, I work for a campaign group called We Can’t Consent to This. We document cases in which women have been killed or seriously injured, and their attackers have claimed that they consented to the violence as part of sex. In response to our efforts, provisions to limit the use of the so-called “rough sex defence” were added to the government’s Domestic Abuse Bill, which was passed into law in April

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This success was in large part due to the emphatic support for our campaign from the tabloid press, which takes a fierce approach to violent crime. And yet this is an approach that often invites derision from legal commentators. For example, the bestselling author the Secret Barrister, has previously written dismissively of the “Tuff On Crime” initiatives that the tabloid press tend to support, and has often been critical of feminist efforts to reform the legal system. When the Leave.EU twitter account condemned the decision to release Pitchfork as “utterly shameful” via a tweet on the 1 September, the Secret Barrister responded by describing their attitude as one of “hatred” towards the criminal justice system.  

[See also: Why the government can’t blame the crisis in our courts on Covid-19 alone]

The Secret Barrister’s unique selling point is an ability to simply explain the workings of the legal system to laypeople and present a sober alternative to misleading reports from the media. Unfortunately, this can all too often morph into a defence of the legal establishment against any criticism from outsiders. At times, legal commentators, such as the Secret Barrister, tend to assume that anyone who objects to a judgment cannot possibly have understood it, and thus must be in need of schooling. 

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It serves these kinds of legal commentators well to present the law as impenetrable, and the legal system as uniquely possessed of wisdom. It is also an attitude that suits the interests of a technocratic class that must justify its power through appeals to expertise. If justice can be accomplished through the application of pure reason, then the public’s moral qualms can be safely dismissed as hysterical. The Secret Barrister attempts to reassure readers that the “Tuff On Crime” case does not need to be heard. 

But, perhaps more than any other area of governance, the criminal justice system is concerned with morality. And while it may be difficult for anyone without legal training to properly understand the workings of the justice system, it is not difficult for laypeople to call on their moral instincts. People who are less educated have just as much of a stake in the justice system as those who are more educated – in fact, arguably more so, since the risk of violent victimisation is inversely related to income. 

While the public are, of course, not of one mind on this issue – or indeed any issue – polling reveals a remarkable degree of unanimity in the desire for a tougher justice system. In 2019, YouGov polling found that 70 per cent of the public think that sentences should be harsher, while only 3 per cent think the opposite. 

The same polling reveals that a slim majority still support the death penalty for some categories of murder, including multiple murders and the murder of a child – despite capital punishment being abolished more than half a century ago, and its return having very little support within parliament. In 2020, only 21 per cent of Conservative MPs polled expressed support for the reintroduction of the death penalty, but not a single Labour MP said they were in favour. 

This presents a problem, and one that cannot be smoothed over with appeals to the sagacity of representative democracy. There is a large and disturbing gulf between what the public wants from its criminal justice system and what it gets. Which is why it should trouble us that, while many members of the public would like to see Colin Pitchfork executed, he instead will be released. 

[See also: Justice, delayed: How Covid-19 exposes our crumbling courts system]

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