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Wednesday, 17 July, 2002, 01:30 GMT 02:30 UK
Analysis: Criminal justice reform

What is Home Secretary David Blunkett attempting to achieve with his criminal justice reforms - and will it meet expectations?

Two central objectives lie at the heart of the government's ambitious criminal justice white paper, "Justice for All ".

One is to develop a more flexible sentencing regime which fits the punishment to the criminal rather than the crime.

The other is to restore public confidence in a legal process which many feel rewards the guilty by playing into the hands of skilful defence lawyers.

To achieve the first objective, the government has unveiled a range of new sentences that have been foreshadowed over the past 18 months by the influential Halliday Report on sentencing and by the Home Office document, "Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead."

Both espoused the philosophy that short jail terms do little other than to boost the prison population and that offenders are more likely to be changed by focused community-based punishments (which allow offenders to continue working and maintain family ties) or by a combination of prison and probation.

In theory, prison will soon be chiefly reserved for the violent and dangerous. But, as ever, the judges will have a large say in what happens.

Second objective

The second objective, to change the perception that too many criminals are "getting away with it", remains the more contentious.

The ending of the double jeopardy rule which prevents someone who has been acquitted being tried for the same offence has been criticised by lawyers and civil libertarians, as well as by the former Conservative cabinet minister, Peter Lilley.

Reducing the number of jury trials - though a heavily diluted version of what the former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, had proposed - has also raised fears that the bedrock of British justice is being eroded.

The proposals to allow judges to sit without a jury where witness intimidation is a factor, albeit a rare occurence, remain. This smacks to some of a Northern Ireland solution to a problem which could be addressed in other ways.

The White Paper is being published against a background of a worrying upturn in the recorded crime figures. The UK also has a record prison population which has led to the use of police cells to hold offenders in England and Wales for the first time in several years.

The government believes that it can attack crime successfully while bringing down jail numbers or, at least, holding them stable.

But that is the Holy Grail of criminal justice that, in recent times, has remained stubbornly elusive.

Find out more about criminal justice reforms proposed for England and Wales

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