Permit Me To Say “Duh!”

Take one tongue, preferably your own. With your mouth closed, stick it behind your lower lip. Now extend the tongue and make let out a sarcastic whine that sounds something like “nnnnnngh”. You have just expressed frustration, irritation at being patronised and a lack of faith in someone’s intelligence, all in the modern vernacular. For those a little slow on the uptake (or those who have dentures or short tongues that preclude trying this experiment), let me explain. This gesture is essentially the dismissive “Duh!” of a sulky American teenager updated for British youf. It says: “you, sir, are a dimwit.” And it is what I found myself doing while reading and listening to Tony Blair (and his gang of ministers and tabloid buddies) talk about the justice system last week.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m unbiased. I gave that nice David Cameron an nnnnnngh recently for blaming society’s problems on Rap music. But Tony Blair has, probably due to pressure from the tabloid press (whose political sophistication and calm, measured approach to social problems would certainly prompt me to choose them as policy advisors) been particularly dim lately. He has been talking about “rebalancing” the way the justice system works, so that the ‘rights of the suspect’ don’t outweigh ‘the rights of the law-abiding majority’. Knee-jerk public opinion naturally supports this. Automatically assuming they are the decent law-abiders (despite speeding fines, tv-license arrears, tax-evasion, dog-fouling and illegal parking which would suggest otherwise) people might be tempted to agree with our Tony.

But, (and please bear with me while I stick my tongue into my bottom lip for a moment) the rights of suspects and the law-abiding public are not in conflict. The rights of suspects are there to protect the law-abiding public, because, as one Radio 4 commentator pointed out last week, we are all potential suspects. Call me paranoid, but a “profound rebalancing the justice system in favour of crime-victims” makes me think of a shift in the burden of proof where you are guilty until proven innocent. Yes, victims of crime are being failed by the justice system, by government, by us. But harsher sentences, fewer rights for possibly innocent suspects and more ridiculous ASBOs for people we don’t like the look of will not change that. Someone going to jail for stealing my car will not get me to work on time. Murdered relatives will not be brought back. Child-abuse will not be erased from victims’ memories.

Mr Blair says there is a gap between what the criminal justice system delivers and what the public wants. He says they believe in punishment as well as rehabilitation. And that is the problem. I am uncomfortable with a secular human institution that aims to punish because I believe vengeance belongs to God and because such human judgement rarely leaves room for Grace. A justice system is there to protect people from crime. You do that by separating dangerous people from the vulnerable. You do that by rehabilitating them so that they do not pose such a danger. But if our focus is judgement and punishment, we will fail victims as much as criminals (who, despite having wronged others, I still like to see as human beings). Perhaps it is time to consider the Christian system of Restorative Justice where offenders have the opportunity to make amends for their crimes rather than just face punishment. But then, it is understandably hard for victims to be impartial. And for some, no punishment will ever be enough.


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