25 MARCH 2006, Page 13

Someone tell me — what is the Home Office for?

Rod Liddle says that the case of Mary Ann Leneghan is just the latest instance of a disastrous collapse in the criminal justice system You may, by now, be losing track. The cases come one after the other, each apparently more horrific than the one which preceded it. And the names, after a while, seem to merge. Robert Symons: now, was he the teacher or the merchant banker? And Danielle Beccan — hadn’t she been to a funfair or something?

The name of Mary Ann Leneghan will soon go the way of the others, I suspect, into that dark sack of half-memories at the back of the brain where bits of the story will retain their resonance, but soon enough we’ll forget who she is, because a new one will come along.

For the moment, though, we’re all too familiar with the cheerful, over-made-up face of 16-year-old Mary Ann, who was murdered in the most brutally imaginable manner in a Reading park. Her case was in the courts this last week and even by the standards we have become used to, it had the power to shock and appal. Her six assailants have now been convicted on the testimony of Mary Ann’s friend who survived, despite being shot at point-blank range between the eyes. At the time of writing, Jamaile Morally, Adrian Thomas, Michael Johnson and Indrit Krasniqi are awaiting sentence and have been told to expect life.

Let me remind you of a few of the other cases. Robert Symons was the teacher who was stabbed through the heart when grappling with a burglar who had invaded his Chiswick home. John Monckton was the banker. Danielle Beccan was the 14-year-old girl shot on her way home from the Nottingham Goose Fair. There are plenty of others; you may remember the name of Sharon Beshenivsky, the Bradford WPC shot dead when she attempted to foil a raid at a travel agency in the city.

Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t remember any of them at all; according to Britain’s top policeman, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, there are certain crimes the public gets itself altogether too worked up about. Soham was one, he suggested. We were institutionally racist in our coverage of crime and tended to report white people being killed, this strange man averred. Well, it’s true that in every one of the cases I’ve mentioned — and which, for a time, made front-page news — black people were the perpetrators, except for one of the killers in Mary Ann’s case, who was Kosovan. And in all but one case (that of little Danielle Beccan) white people were the victims. So perhaps our out rage at these crimes is merely evidence of our deep-seated, institutional racism. But we’ll come back to that.

Because there were other factors in common in some of the above cases which also provoked our outrage. Damien Hanson, the man who killed John Monckton, had been released on parole and was in the care of the probation service when he committed his crime. This, despite the fact that his likelihood of committing another violent crime had been assessed at 91 per cent. There were serious flaws in the way the probation service dealt with Hanson, an inquiry carried out by Andrew Bridges, the chief inspector of probation services, concluded. Similarly, all of the gang of human scum who murdered Mary Ann Leneghan were entrusted to the supervision of the probation service, which, for whatever reason, failed in its job to protect the public. So our odium has been turned upon the probation service, which is, according to its boss, Harry Fletcher, suffering from, bless it, ‘low morale’.

The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, accepted that ‘lessons have to be learnt’. He added that the latest killing, of Mary Ann, was ‘a dagger at the heart of public confidence in the probation service’. And so we have a new initiative from the Home Office to address the problem; but you have to doubt that we’ll be any better off by the end of it. Because the Home Office insists that solutions will have to come from alternatives to imprisonment. Whereas the truth is that if Damien Hanson and Jamaile Morally et al had still been in prison, John Monckton and Mary Ann Leneghan would still be alive.

Dominic Lawson, a former editor of this magazine and a friend of John Monckton, has made this very point eloquently and forcibly. Not only should the parole board think a little more carefully before dispatching murderers into the community, but the tariffs for such crimes as burglary, and especially burglary with violence, should be increased. The average sentence today for burglary is 3.8 months. Lawson also suggests that in the US, where homeowners have the right to use whatever force they feel is right against genuine intruders, the number of break-ins occurring when people are at home is 12 per cent. Over here, where you’re likely to get banged up for even threatening to hurt a burglar, the figure is 50 per cent.

But at the root of this is a disaffection with the philosophy of our criminal justice system; a disaffection recognised by a growing number of small-scale charities set up to help victims of crime; recognised by plenty of media commentators and, I suspect, the overwhelming majority of the general public — but ignored by our legislators and treated with something close to contempt by professionals within the system. It is not simply the old but still valid — contention that the criminal has ‘more rights’ than the victim of the crime; it is a more general feeling that the whole edifice is no longer about protecting the public, rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad, but has been politicised and has become, for want of a better word, unjust.

It is there to be witnessed in the weight given by the police to certain offences; their new obsession with indefinable and often unprosecutable ‘hate crimes’, when matched against the ever-decreasing clear-up rate for burglaries and street robberies. It is there to be witnessed when the parole board decides to release someone who it reckons has a 91 per cent of re-offending. It is even there in the front page of the Home Office website for probation officers. What is the primary role of the probation officer? ‘They are there to offer prisoners help during their sentence and as they prepare for release.’ Nowhere in the job description does it mention protecting the public; there is a mere nod to such duties at the end: ‘Probation staff will probably also be involved in risk assessment.’ It’s a feeling you get whenever Sir Ian Blair opens his big mouth, whenever some uncomprehending member of the public is charged with threatening behaviour for standing up to a bunch of thugs, whenever you read about a new Home Office crime initiative which searches for ‘alternatives’ to custodial sentencing. It is there, too, in the received political correctness of the criminal justice system, in the refusal to accept that there is an enormous problem with firearms in the black community.

In the end, you ask yourself this: why would criminals resist the temptation to commit crime when the punishments imposed by the state are so lax? Why would they care about encountering a householder during the course of a robbery if they know that the householder is barred by law from protecting himself? Why would probation officers put the safety of the general public top of their list of concerns if it’s not even mentioned in the Home Office job description?