By Cage editors
On Wednesday 10th March, the government published the first draft of its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Clocking in at just over 300 pages, the huge Bill appears to be being shunted through Parliament swiftly – with its Second reading (Parliamentary debate) due on 16th March.
Major proposals contained within the Bill include
- A statutory duty to ‘prevent and reduce serious violence’ – effectively mirroring the Prevent duty for social violence;
- Prison sentencing reforms which would end standard release arrangements for certain offences in favour of extended periods in prison;
- A major attack on protest rights, enabling greater police control and management of even peaceful demonstrations.
The unrestrained police crackdown witnessed at this Saturday’s London vigil for Sarah Everard has shocked and galvanised people across the country.
Yet the heavy-handed operation – which could only have been sanctioned from the highest levels – gives a taste as to the policing climate that the new Bill seeks to enshrine into law.
Law & Order: Strengthening brute force and weakening checks and balances
The Bill forms part of a broader law & order crackdown, which has expanded the powers of the policing and security services while insulating them from accountability.
The Bill was introduced just a week after the passage of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act – also referred to as the ‘Spycops bill’, or the ‘Licence to Kill bill’ – into law. The very day it was published, the court of appeals passed a judgement legitimising the practice of authorising MI5 officers to carry out serious criminal activity in pursuit of intelligence. And the day after it was announced, the policing inspectorate released a report into policing of recent protests, which claimed that police assessments “may tip too readily in favour of protesters”.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has been determined to suffocate the surge in protest and direct actions by the Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter movements – a political agenda that animates this Bill.
The Culture War strategy advanced by the government is key to this law & order agenda, by both legitimising heavy handed state power in defence of ‘values’, and cleaving apart political constituencies who might otherwise find some point of common agreement in opposing abuses of power.
This law & order approach forms part of a wider project of reorganising the structure of power within Britain. Traditional institutions of the state serving to check the use of state power, such as the judiciary, have been undermined, demonised and weakened – as exemplified by Boris Johnson’s vendetta against the Supreme Court, or Priti Patel’s attack on ‘activist lawyers’. At the same time the government is seeking to strengthen its relationship with the state’s organs of brute force: the police, the security services, and military.
When the government announced this Bill as delivering on a ‘pledge to restore confidence in the criminal justice system’, this was less about public confidence and more about appeasing the state enforcement machinery.
In short, it signalled a break from the moderate police reformism promoted under the likes of Theresa May.
Prisons: Ending the guise of rehabilitation
In tilting the balance towards tough criminal justice and extended stretches in prison, the sentencing reforms exemplify a punitive turn under this government which has shaped its ‘counter-terrorism’ policies too.
Following the Streatham attack last year the government pushed through the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Act which ended standard automatic release arrangements for prisoners convicted under terrorist offences, while the Counter-terrorism and Sentencing Bill still in Parliament seeks to further cement a new terrorism sentencing regime, and revive Control Orders from the era of the New Labour government.
This runs alongside an ongoing emphasis on tackling ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ in prisons, including through the use of segregated prison wings.
This drive to expand sentencing and securitise prisons will serve to keep people trapped in the cycle of the criminal justice system, and generate a mutually reinforcing response towards securitising the prison estate endlessly.
The circular logic that flows from this is as such:
- ‘Terrorist’ offenders need to be kept behind bars for longer because they pose a threat outside, necessitating more prison places;
- ‘Terrorist’ prisoners pose a radicalising threat to fellow inmates, necessitating more segregated facilities inside;
- The concentration of ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’ prisoners together in segregated facilities increases the threat that they pose to others inside and outside, and so need to be surveilled more closely, and kept in for longer;
- Thereby leading to an endless cycle of securitisation and prison expansion, ending the guise of rehabilitation in favour of harsh criminal justice.
At the close of 2020, 75% of those in prison custody for terrorism-related offences were Muslim, categorised as ‘Islamist extremists’. The research has shown how ordinary Islamic practices by Muslim prisoners are recast as signs of extremism justifying surveillance and control.
As we noted in our report 20 Years of TACT: Justice Under Threat, offences prosecuted under counter-terror law are often a far cry from the commonsense notion of ‘terrorism’ as mass violence – more often than not amounting to ‘pre-crime’ or ideological policing.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill serves the government’s desire for power, rather than any meaningful ‘need’. As the world of counter-terrorism and ‘normal’ criminal justice are increasingly coming into collision, we need a broad-ranging opposition to the government’s dangerous law & order direction.
Image courtesy of Unsplash/@theeastlondonphotographer
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