Grant Woodward: Getting tough over sentences won’t stop scepticism

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THERE tends to be a mass outbreak of muscle-flexing when we nudge closer to election time.

Between now and next May, the parties will no doubt take turns to tell us how much tougher they plan to get on any number of issues ranging from immigration to benefit entitlements.

One particularly hoary old chestnut invariably wheeled out on such occasions is the pledge to get tougher on crime.

It’s a sufficiently woolly promise to ensure politicians can’t really be held to account for failing to deliver on it, while at the same time appealing to our constant desire to feel safer in our homes and on the street.

On the surface, there can be few grumbles with Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s move to change the law so that drivers who cause death or serious injuries on the roads when they have been banned from driving face longer jail sentences.

It’s a response to a shocking culture of leniency when it comes to such offences, one that is laid bare in official figures. In 2011, 153 of the 408 people convicted of causing death or bodily harm while driving dangerously or under the influence of drink or drugs avoided jail. Five were given fines and 63 were handed suspended prison sentences.

The move to longer maximum terms will be coupled with a full review of all driving offences and penalties. This will include a re-evaluation of offences committed by uninsured and unlicensed drivers.

It’s a step that has been welcomed by Huddersfield-based national road safety charity Brake, which has long campaigned for a reform of the penalties for irresponsible drivers who kill and injure on our roads and says it frequently hears from families who feel terribly let down by the justice system.

One such family is that of teenager Jamie Still, from Otley near Leeds. The 16-year-old was run over and killed on New Year’s Eve 2010. He had been walking home from a local takeaway with friends when drink driver Max McRae mounted the pavement and hit him.

His younger sister Rebecca, supported by her local MP Greg Mulholland, subsequently launched a campaign calling for justice for families of those killed by drink drivers, with a 13,000-signature petition being delivered to Downing Street.

For the Stills, and countless other families around the country, then, this will rightly be seen as a breakthrough. What it doesn’t do, however, is square with what is going on elsewhere in the justice system.

Michael Wheatley, who answers to the soubriquet ‘Skull Cracker’, was given 13 life sentences at the Old Bailey in 2002 for a string of violent raids on banks and building societies.

Yet the 55-year-old – who battered his victims with an imitation firearm – went on the run at the weekend after being temporarily allowed out of an open prison before finally being taken back into custody yesterday.

Chris Grayling has come under pressure to explain exactly why Wheatley had been moved to open conditions – and so far he has failed to adequately do so.

The reason for that is simple: there can be no rational explanation for putting such an individual in a place where they can simply walk out of the gates.

Even less explicable is the decision to allow Wheatley out on day release, despite the efforts of Sir David Calvert Smith, chair of the Parole Board, to do so.

Sir David has defended the step as an essential part of a prisoner’s integration into society. He says the alternative is that “we as a society simply have to put up with paying for their accommodation in prison for the rest of their lives”.

As Kent Police yesterday recaptured Wheatley hours after linking him to a fresh raid on a building society which he had robbed in 2001, many will have concluded that they would be more than happy to contribute to the cost of keeping him under lock and key for the remainder of his natural life.

And Wheatley wasn’t a one-off. Officials have admitted that when he went missing police were already hunting three killers, one of whom, 53-year-old David Richards, has been on the run for nine years. Another had previously absconded from an open prison.

In a recent parliamentary answer to a question posed by Shipley MP Philip Davies, it emerged that 643 people are serving life sentences in open prisons – despite the fact that in many cases such a setting is a wholly inappropriate place for these individuals.

It would never happen, of course, but one can’t help wondering how it would affect the decisions of parole board members if they were liable for the cost of offences committed by those they choose to release back into society.

Certainly it will take more than the long overdue reappraisal of the penalties for driving offences and the inevitable rash of promises to “get tough” with criminals in the run-up to the next election to convince the average voter that the justice system is doing its job.