Over 9,000 people responded to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation on driving offences on whether a life sentence should be available for drivers who kill by dangerous driving. Dominic Raab, the Justice Minister has said that it should be:
“We’ve taken a long hard look at driving sentences, and we received 9,000 submissions to our consultation. Based on the seriousness of the worst cases, the anguish of the victims’ families, and maximum penalties for other serious offences such as manslaughter, we intend to introduce life sentences of imprisonment for those who wreck lives by driving dangerously, drunk or high on drugs.”
The consultation did not mention that we already have amongst the safest roads in the world. Nor did it point out that we currently have the highest number of prisoners per head of population in western Europe.
Of course we should try to make our roads safer still, but we could almost certainly do so for very little extra cost and without taking up a single additional prison cell.
Government consultations are often designed to tell governments what they want to hear. And what Governments often want to hear is that the public want longer sentences because nothing is easier than to announce yet another crack-down on crime. Thus, in recent weeks along with the latest crack-down on death drivers we have had announcements to increase sentences for animal cruelty, carrying acid and sharing images of terrorism.
What should we make of Mr Raab’s plan for life sentences to be available for dangerous drivers?
Life imprisonment means you remain in prison until the Parole Board decides that you are safe for release (a decision that is taken over a period of several years, while the lifer is required to work his way through a crystal maze of often pointless and occasionally non-existent courses), and once released you remain liable to be returned to prison at the click of a bureaucrat’s mouse.
Mandatory life sentences are imposed on murderers. Otherwise, they are in practice reserved for exceptionally wicked crimes: typically campaigns of rape, or particularly egregious offences of grievous bodily harm with intent by dangerous gangsters where the combination of the appalling nature of the crime and the need for public safety is held to demand an exceptional sentence.
Making the sentence available for dangerous drivers who kill may well be popular, many foolish ideas are, but it is still wrong. Of course dangerous drivers are a menace. When they kill people they often deserve long sentences. But they are not murderers. The statutory definition of dangerous driving is “driving which falls far below the standard of a careful and competent driver.” They do not even have to appreciate that they are taking a risk, as long as the risk would be obvious to the notional “careful and competent driver.” They may be reckless, stupid or thoughtless; they may be upstanding citizens or career criminals with a contempt for human life. They may drive whilst drunk, or tired or while tweeting or texting. They may be doddery old ladies who fall asleep at the wheel, or daredevil car thieves who enjoy being chased at high speed. But they are not murderers and nor, because they lack the intention to kill, should they be regarded as exceptionally wicked.
For this reason, in practice they will not get the same sentence as murderers or the most evil rapists. The proposed life sentence is a gesture, it is not for actual use. It will never be imposed. It is not even necessary for the worst imaginable cases, which will continue to be charged as manslaughter where a life sentence is already available anyway.
Instead the actual effect of the change – assuming it is approved – is that the Sentencing Council, a little publicised body that sets sentencing guidance that judges are required by law to follow, will revise its guidelines upwards. At present the “starting point” for the most serious category of cases (“driving that involves a deliberate decision to ignore … the rules of the road & an apparent disregard for … great danger”) is 8 years, with a sentencing range of 7 – 14 years. The starting point for the least serious cases (which might, for example, include a brief distraction whilst answering a mobile phone) is 3 years. The most likely outcome will be a tweak upwards of a year or two in most sentences. The most serious category might then have a starting point of 10 years, the least serious will probably creep up to 4. Sentences for other offences will then start to seem lenient by comparison, and pressure will grow for them to be increased as well.
Quite what public benefit this is likely to achieve defeats me. If a dangerous driver is not deterred by the likelihood of an 8 year sentence, will he be deterred by one of 10 years? It seems most unlikely. If a person’s death is not properly acknowledged by an 8 year sentence, is it properly acknowledged by a 10 year sentence? If a driver is a menace on the roads he (usually it is “he”) can – in most cases – be kept off them with a lengthy driving ban, without the need to lock him up in prison.
And whilst this may have little or no effect on road safety, it will certainly have an effect on prison numbers. Some people who would not previously have gone to prison will now do so. Others will spend a year or two longer inside.
Almost every month this year there have been riots – sorry, “low level disturbances quickly brought under control” – somewhere in the English prison system. Only a couple of weeks ago a whole wing of Long Lartin prison was taken over by prisoners. Heaven only knows what vengeance was wrought and what scores were settled before the the balaclava-clad Tornado squad “restored order.”
The suicide rate amongst prisoners is at a record high, double what it was in 2013. And it is not just prisoners who have suffered, as the latest annual report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons made clear:
“There have been startling increases in all types of violence. The biggest increase is assaults on staff which, in the 12 months to December 2016, rose by 38% to 6,844 incidents. Of these 789 were serious, an increase of 26%. In total there were more than 26,000 assaults, an increase of 27%.”
It is becoming common-place for prisoners to be locked in cells for twenty or more hours out of every twenty-four. It’s surprisingly hard to get into the right frame of mind for rehabilitation when you’re banged up day after day with only a self-harmer with antisocial personality disorder, several cockroaches and a lidless toilet for company.
As the Chief Inspector put it in more measured terms:
“staffing levels in many jails … are simply too low to keep order and at the same time run a decent regime ….”
Put simply, we send more people to prison than we can afford. The result is a disintegrating system, increasingly abandoned by experienced staff. Promises to recruit 2,500 new officers – many of them callow youths and school leavers – will hardly begin to address the problem; and every time sentences are increased it is exacerbated. We simply cannot afford to cram yet more inmates into our prisons.
Despite the insistence of well-meaning politicians like Lord Adonis, the overcrowding crisis is not mainly the fault of judges. They are obliged to work within a sentencing regime which affords them ever less discretion.
Nor, despite their tiresome and unattractive boasting on social media, is it the fault of the CPS. The responsibility lies with politicians – of all parties – who are happy to campaign for laws that force the courts to impose ever longer custodial sentences, without taking responsibility for the fact that in a time of decreasing resources this can only result in ever more overcrowded and under-staffed prisons.
It takes no political courage to support longer sentences for dangerous drivers, or indeed for any other crime. As a result, the spineless will probably join up with the punitive to nod this latest piece of populist gimmickry through Parliament. It is probably too much to hope that there are some MPs with the backbone to try to prevent it.
Yet there is a toughening of the criminal law which might make a real difference to road safety, and would do so at no great expense and without imposing more burdens on a prison system which manifestly cannot cope; indeed it might even save money overall. The law on driving whilst using a mobile phone, though slightly harsher than it was, is clearly not working. A survey by Sky News found that 39% of drivers admitted to having used their phones (without a hands-free kit) while driving (and 11% preferred not to say, I wonder why). Anyone standing by a busy roadside for even a few minutes is very likely to see someone flouting the law. A mandatory 6 month ban – subject to exceptional circumstances – for drivers who use a mobile phone in a moving car would quickly ensure that most drivers placed their phones safely in glove compartments, out of temptation’s way.
There is a parallel with drink driving. Long before the offence of causing death by careless driving whilst drunk was introduced, and long before prison sentences for causing death by dangerous driving started to increase in length (as they have done in the last decade or so), a combination of the breathalyser and a well-publicised mandatory 12 month ban for drink driving simultaneously reduced the incidence of drink driving and made the practice socially unacceptable. Partly as a result, deaths from accidents involving drunk drivers have fallen dramatically from about 1,600 in 1979 to about 200 in 2015; furthermore the number of drink driving accidents has fallen more steeply than that of other accidents (the Department of Transport points out that there is considerable uncertainty over the figures, and plenty of other factors have also helped reduce fatalities on the roads).
There are. of course, lots of dangerous and distracting things that people do while driving. They might argue, eat messy sandwiches or fiddle with their radios. No matter: the fact that getting tough on mobile phone users does not deal with other distractions as well is just whataboutery. Short of the sort of situation depicted in Duel (which for those who have not seen it is a brilliant and scary Steven Spielberg film about a car being pursued across the Arizona desert by a huge truck with a homicidal maniac at the wheel) there can hardly ever be a legitimate need to answer or make a phone call while driving, still less to text or write a message of any sort. Nobody disputes that it is an extremely dangerous practice. It is high time that those who did it learnt that they will a,most certainly lose their licences if they get caught.