The senior judge who wants less punishment for criminals

Published August 2005

The Guardian, August 2005

The retiring lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, today makes a passionate plea for a new approach to law and order which would see a major shift away from punishment towards the solution of problems which generate crime.

Writing in today’s Guardian, Lord Woolf suggests a shortlist of four strictly limited categories of offenders who might be imprisoned and – in sharp contrast to the rhetoric of government ministers – he adds: “We need wider understanding and acceptance that the principles of sentencing are not just founded on punishing offenders.”

Lord Woolf is stepping down in September after five years as the most senior criminal judge in England and Wales. His comments come in a response to the Guardian’s two-year investigation into the criminal justice system, which uncovered fundamental weaknesses. The heads of prisons, drug treatment and the new National Offender Management Service (Noms) also respond in today’s paper.

Lord Woolf argues for a fundamental change in the use of imprisonment, restricting its use to the most dangerous offenders and the most serious crimes, as a recognition of special offences and as a fall-back where all other efforts have failed. But his stress is on the need to find more effective ways of cutting crime.

“Whilst I firmly believe that for serious and violent crimes there is no alternative to a custodial sentence, I also believe passionately on taking steps to turn people away from crime,” he writes.

“We do not want a system that shuts people outside society, once they have left the prison gates.”

He highlights the failure of current measures to prevent reoffending: “All of us working within the system must aim to do much better than that.”

He supports moves towards restorative justice, which sees offenders making amends to their victims; and he suggests there might be a wider use of the approach taken with young offenders by the Youth Justice Board, which pulls together different agencies in a concerted attack on the roots of crime: “I see great value in looking at the specific needs and problems of particular groups.”

He welcomes the creation of the new Noms but, in an aside which may irritate Whitehall, he acknowledges concerns, highlighted in the Guardian series, that the Home Office is struggling to manage the creation of the new service.

His comments come as the prison population in England and Wales shows alarming signs of surging upwards. On Friday, it reached a new high of 76,877 with predictions that it may break through 77,000 this week – despite the fact that August normally sees a drop in imprisonment.

Courts are apparently being driven into tougher sentencing by the recent outbreak of punitive rhetoric from government ministers, led by the prime minister’s comments on young people wearing hoodies. This week a court sentenced a teacher who had had sex with a 14-year-old pupil to 15 months in jail.

Lord Woolf has a history of standing up to ministers and other hardliners over this kind of rhetoric. In May he spoke out against the overcrowding of prisons immediately after the chief constable of Hampshire, Paul Kernaghan, had called for yet more offenders to be jailed.

Last year, he clashed with the former home secretary, David Blunkett, and the Sun newspaper, both of whom attacked his proposal to reduce the time served in prison by murderers who plead guilty. He has also challenged the lord chancellor’s intervention in the appointment of judges for public inquiries.

In his response, the chief executive of Noms, Martin Narey, defends the organisation, which is merging prisons and probation. But he is outspoken about the past failings of probation, conceding that reporting to courts was “close to collapse”; some leaders of probation did not believe their clients were capable of being educated, even though this was one of their priorities; and that the caricature of community penalties being badly enforced was “uncomfortably close to reality”.

Back to top