Tom Hunt: Soft sentencing is causing voters to lose faith in the justice system. And it’s up to the Government to put it right.

18 Jun

Tom Hunt is the Conservative MP for Ipswich.

The Conservative Party, with the inroads made into the “Red Wall” seats, has a great opportunity to better align itself with some of the deeply held views of both our traditional voter base and the Labour converts who have grown fed up at what might be described as the Labour Party’s “softness”.

When it comes to law and order, it is undeniable that our voters are in favour of firm policies to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. My constituents are also routinely outraged when sentencing is soft and when they feel that prisoners are being allowed to get away with crimes from behind bars.

They rightly feel that justice isn’t being served in these instances, and it is an affront to them as law abiding citizens. Many of them believe that the criminal justice system is completely broken, and they have lost faith and trust in it.

But whatever the reasons for this, whether it is lax guidance handed down by the Sentencing Council, an increasing tendency within the judiciary to vastly mitigate sentences, or a lack of enforcement within individual prisons, the public ultimately look to the Government as being responsible.

When they see, every day, people being handed soft sentences for some of the most horrid crimes, they do not consider judicial independence or make the distinction between different independent institutions, but rather they look to the Prime Minister, to the Home Secretary, and to their MPs to rectify the problem.

How then are we to rectify this? How do we ensure that the public continues to trust that we are the party of law and order?

There are two examples of heinous crimes which have outraged my constituents in Ipswich. To say that these two cases have cut through within the consciousness of my constituents would be an understatement.

One is the killing of Richard Day by Andrea Cristea, who punched him in the neck and was seen laughing over his body as he searched his pockets for money. Shockingly, Cristea, convicted of the manslaughter of Day was in the end given only a four-year sentence. With time spent on remand and automatic halfway release, he will be behind bars for only 10 months.

People in Ipswich are asking how this is possible. There really does seem to be a huge disconnect between the justice expected by the public and what is handed down in courts. Unfortunately, the judiciary appear very much out of touch with public sentiment (we need only look to the High Court’s Napier Barracks decision to see another prominent example of them being cut-off from the opinion of the public).

There was also the brutal killing of 17-year-old Tavis Spencer-Aitkens by a gang of five. In this case, four of the killers were convicted for murder and one for manslaughter however upon appeal one murderer, Kyreis Davies, had his sentence brought down from life to 16 years. This is because Davies was 16 at the time.

Polling has shown that there is a natural inclination towards harsher sentencing and stricter punishment when it comes to violent crime. We need to give our voters some credit and push hard for the tougher punishment which they are asking for. I appreciate that we may not be able to go as far as many would like. We have an independent judiciary after all. But then it falls on us as politicians to make some noise about it and to push for legislation which will encourage harsher sentences being handed down.

Something needs to be done, and we cannot simply say to the public that it is the fault of some independent body which they have never heard of. They feel as though they are being let down by politicians and so many have completely lost faith in the justice system.

We also need to clamp down on the perception that once convicted for some of the most heinous crimes, the punishment itself is overly soft. Unacceptably, the killers of Tavis have been able to further outrage the public and torment Tavis’ family from behind bars. Each of the five killers have at some point used social media from behind bars. One particularly egregious repeat offender, Callum Plaats, at one occasion boasted on Snapchat about how he will only serve half of his 14-year sentence – “five years left, light work”.

This criminal usage of social media has caused an extraordinary amount of pain and suffering to the family of Tavis who lose faith in the justice system with every post. No victims of violent crime should ever have to be taunted by these criminals serving time. The Government has given me assurances that it is tackling this issue, but it is clear that we have a large problem with how the public perceives these inadequacies throughout the whole of the justice system at every level.

In parliament I have been active alongside Sir Iain Duncan Smith and a number of my other colleagues on a campaign to change the law on pet theft which is a crime that has exploded this year over the pandemic. I had written to the sentencing council asking them to amend their guidelines so that judges could better take into account the emotional trauma to both the owners and the animals for a crime like this, but they could not understand the huge public feeling on this issue and refused to take it any further. Unfortunately, institutions such as the Sentencing Council are cut off and divorced from public sentiment, and we need to find a way to grapple with this.

A group of MPs are now pushing to introduce a new law on pet theft which will see harsher sentencing and introduce a number of measures to deter criminals from illegally trafficking stolen pets.

We saw with the Release of Prisoners Order 2020 that measures ending the halfway release of those sentenced to over seven years for serious violent crimes and sexual offences such as rape were hugely popular. This was then extended in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which similarly ended the automatic halfway release of those who have been sentenced to over four years for these types of crimes. This is exactly the type of thing we as Conservative politicians should be pushing for in all areas more widely.

It’s not just the right thing to do as representatives of a public who are asking for it, but it is a matter of political imperative. The reality is that like on so many other issues such as immigration, on law and order the Conservative Government is on trial. If we are to hold on to our new voters, we need to show them that we do actually care about the policies which matter to them.

We cannot just rest on our laurels and imagine that getting Brexit done and being the party of patriotism will continue to resonate if the voters cannot see material change in areas such as law and order.

It is simply not enough for us to say, “we cannot deal with this because it is in the hands of some other body”. We must act now to restore faith and public trust in our justice system – whether that means looking at the role of the Sentencing Council or how we instruct the judiciary going forward, all options should be on the table.