Andrew Sperling on why the Conservative leadership contender’s “cheap attempt to whip up hatred’ on a prisoner’s temporary release – a case he will know nothing about – is dangerous.
One of the few pleasures of working in the criminal justice system is that it has been, until earlier this week, a Boris Johnson-free zone.
The former Foreign Secretary and Mayor of London has largely steered clear of pronouncements about sentencing and the penal system. But, this week, Johnson decided to show the world that he cares about things other than Brexit and Boris Johnson by writing a column for the Daily Telegraph inspired by a photograph of serving prisoner, Luke Jewitt, at a health spa with his mother.
It is tempting to deny attention-seekers the oxygen of publicity, but this one could be Prime Minister before the year is out. What he says matters.
Boris Johnson knows nothing about Luke Jewitt other than the fact of his conviction.
He will not have spoken to staff at the prison who approved his release on temporary licence. He will not have spoken to Jewitt personally. He will not know how Jewitt has conducted himself during his prison sentence. He bemoans the failure of prisons to provide “any real attempt, or capacity, to re-educate and to reform” without having the slightest idea as to whether this is true in Jewitt’s case or anyone else’s.
Johnson appears to object to the concept of release on temporary licence. The Conservative Justice Secretary David Gauke has a different take on this.
“If, at the end of a prison term, our objective is to release into the community a responsible citizen, we must first ensure that we have a responsible prisoner,” the Justice Secretary has said. “An important way we can do this for some prisoners is release on temporary license – or ROTL. Research last year shows the more ROTL a prisoner gets, the less chance there is of them reoffending.”
The reason Gauke is able to say this is because he has studied the evidence. Johnson clearly has not. Instead, he focuses his energies on caricaturing Jowett as a “shaven-skulled ganglord… sprawling like Nero in his whirlpool bath”, in a cheap attempt to whip up hatred and to support his evidence-free assertions about the criminal justice system.
“What is going on with these parole boards?” he asks with faux outrage. “One has the impression that they are simple slaves to political correctness, and unaccountable for the risks they take with public safety.”
Luke Jewitt has been nowhere near a parole board.
He is serving a determinate sentence and is subject to a release scheme which was implemented by a Conservative Government. If Johnson had paid the slightest attention to criminal justice legislation, he would be aware that this is how determinate sentences work in this country.
There is a custodial period and a licence period (during which prisoners can be recalled if they breach licence conditions). The Parole Board has, so far, had nothing to do with this case.
What is the basis for Johnson’s suggestion that the Parole Board’s members are “simple slaves to political correctness”?
Has he attended any Parole Board hearings? Has he spoken to any Parole Board members? Is it acceptable for an aspiring leader to throw out insults about people and processes he clearly knows nothing about?
Johnson states: “It is becoming more and more regular for prisoners to be let out early – even when they have been convicted of the most serious and violent crimes.”
There is absolutely no evidential basis for this statement at all. Does the Telegraph not require its writers to conduct any kind of research or to substantiate assertions they make?
The graph below shows prisoner release rates between April 2016 and August 2018. Is it possible to interpret this data in the way that Johnson has?
Another graph, below, shows the number of serious further offences (SFOs) committed by released prisoners alongside the numbers of prisoners released or progressed to an open prison. Does it support Johnson’s wild claims?
Johnson is also incandescent about the Prime Minister’s appointment of a former Labour MP, Vera Baird, as the new Victims’ Commissioner.
Baird has actual experience of the criminal justice system.
She has campaigned and supported initiatives to protect victims of domestic violence and hate crimes. Johnson has publicly described funding of investigations into historic child abuse as “money being spaffed up a wall”. ‘Spaff’ is slang for ejaculate.
It is dangerous to have opinionated dilettantes like Johnson in positions of power. It is dangerous because they do not take the time to understand the worlds they pontificate about. They can cause serious damage – as exemplified by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling whose vandalism to the criminal justice system is still being cleaned up.
“They were careless people, Chris and Boris – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness… and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” (With apologies and thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’).
Andrew Sperling is a Solicitor-Advocate and Director of SL5 Legal. He worked as an adviser to the Parole Board of England and Wales in 2014-15.