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22 September 2022

The Tories have broken Britain’s justice system – Labour can fix it

From huge court backlogs to unacceptable reoffending rates, it’s no wonder the public has lost faith in the system.

By Steve Reed

Crime is rife under the Conservatives, and victims and our communities feel abandoned. It is no surprise given the Tories have cut police numbers, closed courts and allowed many young offenders off without completing community payback sentences. There’s a backlog of nearly 60,000 criminal court cases after a string of Conservative justice secretaries – including Liz Truss – reduced the number of judges, sold off courts, and stood by as one in four criminal barristers quit in despair at our crumbling criminal justice system.  

The nation was appalled in recent weeks to hear of a 13-year-old rape survivor who waited two years for her case to come to trial, only to see it postponed for a further nine months before it was due to begin. The then Tory justice secretary Dominic Raab didn’t even acknowledge her father’s letter pleading for help.

What’s shocking is that this is not an isolated incident. Three-year delays are now the norm not the exception for rape trials in Tory-backlog Britain, and only a disgracefully low 1.3 per cent of reported rapes ever get prosecuted. Such catastrophic delays lead to cases collapsing as despairing victims withdraw and witnesses forget critical details putting convictions at risk.

Meanwhile, crimes as serious as burglary, street robbery, car break-ins and fraud have effectively been decriminalised because the Tories cut 21,000 police from our streets, leaving too few to respond to 999 calls. A prisoner today is more likely to leave prison addicted to drugs than when they first went in. No wonder the government can’t get a grip on unacceptable reoffending rates when its broken justice system is stoking rather than stopping crime.

[See also: The Metropolitan Police is a danger to women]

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These devastating failures have trashed public trust in the system and made our communities less safe. Britain’s communities need a Labour government to make our streets safe and secure once again.

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But Conservative failures do not automatically translate into support for Labour. Our party must show that we understand victims’ need to see justice done, as well as the need to prevent crime at source.

I was once robbed in a dark street with a knife pressed against my throat. I know how it feels to want to see offenders brought to justice, but like every victim I’d rather not have been attacked at all.

When I was first elected as a council leader in south London, the area was gripped by violent youth crime. Three young people were murdered within six months as gangs fought on the streets to control the drug trade. But our Labour council didn’t stand by. We worked with the worst-affected communities and the police to draw up a new strategy that successfully cut violent crime by a third in just 18 months.

We invested in better support for families struggling to prevent their children going down the wrong path, opened a help-line for parents worried that their child was getting involved in a violent gang, involved local voluntary sector and faith groups to channel support to young people who would not engage with the authorities, and set up projects that diverted them away from crime. But we also got tough on enforcement – helping the police arrest and prosecute those whose criminal behaviour was making the law-abiding majority fearful for their safety.  

I know what it takes to cut crime on our streets because I’ve done it before. Beating crime needs communities to come together to fight it, but they need the police, the courts and councils on their side – with the whole system focused on the needs of victims.

Nearly 30 years ago, Tony Blair declared that Labour would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. The result? A Labour government that reduced crime by a third. It’s time to update this approach for today’s world.

As the shadow justice secretary, I have a simple mantra: punish, prevent and protect. Labour will make the criminal justice system work from end-to-end to prevent and punish crime, while protecting victims.  

Firstly, the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has announced Labour will introduce new neighbourhood police hubs to crack down on crime and antisocial behaviour. The hubs will give residents a place they can go to report crime or find support. Labour will also make prison work. Under the Tories, prisons have descended into violent drug-fuelled colleges of crime. With Labour, prisons will keep neighbourhoods safe by making sure criminals are kept off the streets, but it will also rehabilitate. We will do this by supporting staff to reduce reoffending rates.

Secondly, Labour will prevent crime by delivering the world’s first “trauma-informed” criminal justice system. This means reforming the system to use learning from the developing science around childhood trauma. In so many cases – whether it’s low-level antisocial behaviour up to the most serious forms of crime against the person – you can trace an offender’s criminal behaviour back to a childhood trauma that damaged their cognitive and emotional development. Whether it’s a child growing up with a drug-addicted parent or witnessing violent abuse in their home, that trauma can take hold and express itself in damaging criminal behaviour. If we focus our courts and prisons on tackling that, we can break the cycle of crime for good.

Thirdly, Labour will protect victims. We will bring in the Victims’ Law that has been long denied by the Conservatives – and put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. We will set up new victims’ panels that give communities in every neighbourhood a bigger say over how offenders pay back for the harm they’ve done. 

The dire situation within our criminal justice system requires bold action. To take the necessary steps to rescue the system from the brink, we must look at every stage from community sentences to diversion, the courts, prisons and probation. We will use these insights to keep communities safe as we put victims back where they belong, at the very heart of a functioning justice system.

[See also: Labour’s new mantra on crime: “punish, prevent, protect”]

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