Last week's crime figures showed that burglary and crimes of violence were up during the last three months of 2008. But depressing though that is, the reaction to the data is even more so. Almost no-one is taken in by the Government's repeated insistence that we've all "never had it so good", for violent crime, according to official figures, has doubled since 1997. But collectively, we seem to have given up on the hope that anything can be done about it.
That is a mistake. It is not, in fact, that difficult to improve the justice system and to bring down crimes of violence. It has been done in America: in Boston, for example, aggressive policing and the conviction and harsh sentencing of those carrying guns on the street brought violent crime levels down by 60 per cent. In 1995, there were five times as many street robberies in New York City as in London. Today, London has 14,000 more street robberies a year than does New York.
The steps needed to re-balance our system of justice so that it is more effective do not involve anything very radical. They come down to three:
Step 1. Provide incentives to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that violent criminals are prosecuted rather than let off with cautions (the number of violent criminals given cautions has increased by 82 per cent over the past five years).
Step 2. Increase significantly the minimum sentences for violent crimes: if you are part of a gang that rapes someone and douses them in caustic soda, for example, you should go to prison for life, not come up for release in two and half years (as will happen to Jason Brew, convicted of that crime last week).
Step 3. Increase significantly the number of prison places so that the greater number of criminals sentenced to longer terms can be accommodated.
If those steps sound familiar, it's because they are. Labour has repeatedly promised to take each of them. It has repeatedly failed to keep its promises. The root cause of that failure has been the reluctance to fund a significant expansion of the prison system. Labour has passed a series of criminal justice acts which sound as if they are going to increase the sentences for violent criminals. But because it has failed to provide additional prison places, those tough-sounding laws have been reversed by early release schemes, by "community punishments", and by other initiatives dedicated to keeping criminals out of prison.
Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, wanted to introduce targets for the police which would include special incentives for forces if they increased the number of violent criminals they arrested and persuaded the CPS to prosecute. Jack Straw, the Justice Minister, soon put a stop to that: he said it would mean more violent criminals would be sent to prison – and there was neither the money nor the prison places for that.
There is, within not just Labour, but also among the academics, civil servants and judges who run the system, a belief that no policy can make much difference to crime levels, and that it is wrong to punish criminals severely anyway, because perpetrators of crime are "victims" too. Jack Straw has railed against that bias on occasion. But he has done nothing to end it, and indeed has continued to preside over a system that enshrines it.
Chris Grayling, the new shadow home secretary, needs to demonstrate that if the Tories win the next election, they will replace Labour's empty rhetoric with serious action. One of his first commitments might be to re-introduce Michael Howard's policies of "three strikes and you're out" – mandatory prison sentences for drug dealers, burglars and robbers convicted for the same offence on three occasions – and "honesty in sentencing", so that a four year sentence actually means you spend four years in prison, not 18 months or less as is often the case at the moment. Mr Howard's attempt, when he was Home Secretary, to introduce those policies was frustrated by the judges and by the Tories' wafer-thin majority. Labour was able to insert a clause which meant judges could vary sentences as they saw fit. And so they have, using their "discretion" to keep criminals out of prison. Mr Howard never got round to "honesty in sentencing".
The effect has been that criminals have to commit dozens, sometimes scores or even hundreds of offences, before they are sentenced to prison. The idea behind leniency is that criminals will reform if given a second (or third, or thirtieth) chance. There is no evidence whatever to support that idea. The evidence rather demonstrates the opposite: when criminals know that the costs of crime to them are low, because the chances of being convicted and sent to prison are close to zero, they respond by committing more crimes. That's why we have rising rates of violent crime, while rates in America are falling: in America, they don't caution criminals, they send them to prison for lengthy terms. It only takes determination on the part of Government for similar policies to be adopted here.