A progressive justice system
Stop and search powers, named person legislation and votes for prisoners: three separate issues which have hit the news in the last couple of weeks and each of which have given me pause for thought.
We talk a lot in the Scottish Parliament about our progressive politics and I have made it clear, I want Labour to be more willing to work with others who share our sense of social mission, but how progressive are we in practice?
The named person legislation is a classic example of good intentions leading us to the wrong outcome. It is right to be worried about the number of children in our country who are not looked after, nurtured or protected and cases of cruelty and neglect repeatedly highlight the need to for us to act on or share the information we do hold. What is not right is to conclude that the solution must therefore be to have a state appointed guardian for every child. It is not just an over-reaction which diverts scarce resources away from where they are needed, it has the potential to damage the way we relate to each other and our attitude to the very public services designed to offer us support.
We’ve been down this route before. In order to try and stop horrific crimes against children, we now subject hundreds of thousands of law abiding citizens to a disclosure check, asking them to prove they are not a danger to others. I remain sceptical as to how much safer our children are since this law was passed. I remain worried that it has fed the atmosphere of suspicion rather than assuaged it.
The named person legislation risks making the same mistakes, creating an expensive bureaucratic beast without offering any additional protection and in the meantime, potentially damaging the way we regard our teachers, health visitors and social workers. Well intended I have no doubt, but not helping us build the Good Society, not what I would call progressive.
The overuse of Stop and Search is slightly clearer for me. Yes, children and young people need the protection of the police more than most of us. They are the ones most likely to be victims of crime and assault, but in trying to keep our communities safe we’re in danger of turning our police service into a police force. I discovered that more than 7,500 people were searched in East Renfrewshire last year. That’s more than 20 people a day in an area with one of the lowest crime rates in Scotland.
Perhaps more to the point, in the vast majority of cases, nothing is found and very, very few successful prosecutions result. What damage is this practice doing to our young people (two thirds of those stopped are under 25!). Police Scotland have now been reported to a UN Committee but is that what it takes before we look afresh at ourselves and this progressive society we say we are building?
Votes for prisoners is a more complex issue to get right. Most people, including myself I should add, have an instinctive reaction to the very idea of someone convicted of a crime helping to choose the representatives who will then shape the law itself. The difficulty is that this tends to reflect our views on punishment for wrongdoing, but is blind to the range of offenders and people in our prisons and does nothing to help them behave in a more law-abiding or socially responsible way. As it is, I am ashamed of the fact that we lock up more fellow Scots than most other European countries. We should do more to protect our neighbourhoods from the violent and dangerous, whilst equally doing more for those many individuals who could be turned around.
We like to think of ourselves as a progressive Parliament, but alongside our fine words, there is a fair amount of evidence of our more reactionary instincts. Our response to the behaviour of some football fans has been to treat them all as though they are violent and sectarian.
I was pleased when the Scottish Government recently revisited their plans to build a huge new prison for women. There must be a better way and I suspect a more cost effective way too, of dealing with sad and damaged lives whilst still protecting society and clearly demarcating between right and wrong. Would it not help rehabilitate some of these women back into society if we encouraged them to take responsibility and feel part of their own communities through allowing them to vote? That doesn’t mean giving all prisoners the vote, but just recognising for some, it could be a way or re-engaging and rebuilding the mutual bonds we all want to see.
I recognise that this is a thorny issue and that a lot of people would say that the courts have made their judgment, but it’s also about what kind of message we send to young offenders, female offenders or non-violent offenders and whether we treat them all like rapists and murderers. To my mind there is a big difference between the violent and dangerous and those who have let their lives go off the rails.
I would not want to replicate a blanket ban with a blanket right to vote but if someone has demonstrated good behaviour and shown that they feel shame for their actions, should we not at least look at this further?
To my mind, if we want to live in a decent, kind and compassionate society then we need to treat people with decency, kindness and compassion. Our criminal justice system might be one place to start.