Page last updated at 15:02 GMT, Friday, 23 June 2006 16:02 UK

Who does justice system favour?

By Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

Tony Blair arrives for his speech on Monday
Mr Blair said he wanted to support the 'law abiding' majority

Tony Blair believes there is a growing gap between the criminal justice system and what the public expects from it. But is this true? And if so what, if anything, can be done to bridge the gap?

After controversy over too lenient prison sentences, the prime minister has said the rights of suspects must not "outweigh" those of the "law-abiding majority".

Mr Blair was speaking after he met victims of crime in inner city Bristol.

David Hill, the former head of Gwent CID, agrees there is an imbalance in the criminal justice system, adding "the gap has been getting wider for a number of years".

If the balance hasn't changed by now, will it ever change?
Claire Hamilton

But Mr Hill, who was awarded the Queens Police Medal during more than 30 years as a policeman before becoming a security consultant at red24, said the root causes were failings by the CPS and police.

"The police are not handling crime in the way they should and the CPS are not pursuing cases through the courts in the way the public would expect," he said.

Mr Hill said cases were often dropped if there was not likely to be a guilty plea or the evidence against the accused was overwhelming.

"It looks better in figures if there is a high conviction rate," he said.

"There seems to be a reluctance to take on the people who are causing the problems in society."

Populist policies

Downing Street has stressed 1000 new prison places will be ready for next year and talks are ongoing between the Home Office and the Treasury about extra resources.

And Mr Blair has insisted new legislation under his government has been necessary.

But a number of criminologists have questioned his stance.

David Hill
Ex-policeman David Hill agrees a justice system 'gap' exists
Ian Loader, Oxford University's professor of criminology, likened the government initiatives to "putting a plaster on a broken leg".

His view was echoed elsewhere.

Claire Hamilton, a criminologist based at University College Dublin, told the BBC News website Labour had legislated at a "frenetic pace" since coming to power.

"There has been really draconian legislation under Blair's government. If the balance hasn't changed by now, will it ever change?," she asked.

She cited the expansion of detention powers under the Criminal Justice Act of 2003, as well as a change to the law which meant a suspect could be tried twice for the same crime if new evidence emerged.

However, she welcomed Mr Blair's call for a rational debate on the subject, despite her sense the prime minister appeared to "operate on a purely populist basis".

This accusation echoed comments by Terry Grange, the chief constable of Dyfed Powys Police, who accused ministers of being swayed by the News of the World over calls for new laws about sex offenders.

Legacy concerns

Helen May, a criminal justice lecturer at the university of Plymouth, also questioned the idea there was a need to rebalance the justice system, arguing "it is more to do with perception, rather than reality".

"Scandals at the Home Office got through to the public and created a fear of crime in the public and the idea that they will become a victim," she told the BBC News website.

"Crime has always existed and there will always be a small percentage who are victims, but it does not mean that in modern Britain that risk has increased."

The academic added the moves suggested by Mr Blair might lead to more offenders being imprisoned and would be "papering over" cracks in society as "prison numbers are escalating constantly" and leads to a cycle of re-offending.

Meanwhile, Professor Marion Fitzgerald, of the University of Kent, said: "The idea that we tilt it in one way or another is totally misplaced."

She also questioned motives behind the drive saying Mr Blair seemed "worried about his legacy".

She feared that despite some useful legislation being introduced it had not been given enough time to reveal its benefits and that it was "actually going to damage his legacy".

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