Two distinguished legal commentators call for a royal commission on the penal system. That’s unlikely.

It’s nine months since I was last victim of a crime - a mundane theft - but I still fantasise about consigning the perpetrator to Her Majesty’s darkest oubliette, preferably damaging a few limbs on the way down. I’ll probably feel the same way next May, should any parliamentary candidate turn up on my doorstep promising a more enlightened policy on the incarceration of petty criminals. 

None will, of course. I can bet that every serious party standing in my stereotypically liberal north London constituency will be stressing how tough it will be on crime and how supportive it will be toward victims. And woe betide any government that goes back on this promise when in office. 

This is the basic problem with entrusting the penal system to elected career politicians. As two distinguished legal academics point out in a thoughtful pamphlet* published this week, between 1992 and 2013 the incarceration rate in England and Wales rose from 90 to 148 prisoners per 100,000 population. The number serving life sentences has risen from 3,000 in 1992 to 14,000 today. The trend shows no sign of flattening.

And yet crime has fallen – by half since 1995, according to the Crime Survey of England (which estimates the number of crimes occurring rather than simply those recorded by police).  

With each prison place costing between £35,000 and £40,000 a year, ‘expenditure is being incurred on a vast scale’, Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC and Sean McConville of Queen Mary University of London School of Law point out. ‘We have a disjunction here that were it to occur in almost any other field of public administration would have been at the centre of a prolonged national debate.’

The reason for the disjunction is a political mechanism ‘ill-adapted to construct and promulgate penal and related criminal justice policy. The outcomes are simply perverse’.

The authors trace this state of affairs to the refusal by successive governments since 1980 to listen to any expert advice on the topic. Instead, ‘politics became the ominous order of the day’. 

Their solution? A royal commission to examine such questions as:

  • What is the relationship between crime rates and punishment?
  • Given a finite budget for the penal system, how should it be spent?
  • What should the public reasonably expect of the penal system?
  • Are there reliable means of dealing with offending outside the formal justice system?
  • How should research evaluate and inform criminal justice policy?

As you would expect, the report is beautifully written and breathtaking in its historical perspective – Blom-Cooper after all is a veteran of the 1960s campaign to abolish the death penalty among many other causes. It is also gloriously unlikely to be implemented.

Fifty years ago under the Wilson government parliament was able to consider the findings of the 1949-53 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, defy public opinion and abolish the noose. In the current mood towards the metropolitan elites who would stuff such a commission, there is zero chance of such enlightenment manifesting itself today.

At least until we rid parliament of full-time career politicians who owe their advancement to that of their party. 

This is a shame because the report makes some excellent recommendations for the commission’s conduct which could usefully adopted for judicial inquiries in general. These include setting strict timetables and restricting 'verbal evidence, which sometimes is mere grandstanding', to the absolute minimum. Again, in the current political mood, it is hard to see such sense being put into effect. 

*The Case for a Royal Commission on the Penal System, by Sir Louis Blom-Cooper and Sean McConville, Queen Mary University of London School of Law

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor