Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Don't rush to judgment on Ford's proposal

The proposal by the Justice Minister David Ford to change radically the method of dealing with some lesser offences is bound to cause a degree of unease among those who believe that even a short prison sentence remains a deterrent.

The minister is proposing to abolish a court's option for imposing sentences of three months or less, and replacing them with community service orders. This far-reaching proposal will go out to consultation, and its acceptance would lead to a change in the legislation.

Jim Wells of the DUP has already voiced his concern, which may be representative of others. He believes that petty criminals are unlikely to be deterred by the threat of a community service order, and argues that society must ensure that the balance between rehabilitation and punishment is not tilted too far in one direction.

His measured intervention underlines the complexities involved, but the situation will not be helped by knee-jerk reactions from those in general who believe that the Justice Minister is going soft on crime.

This is a proposal which should be calmly considered in order to find if it has genuine merit. Our prisons are already crowded, and our courts and justice system are facing great pressure.

If the new proposal is adopted, the major test will be whether or not it deters people from returning to crime. If not, then the minister will need to think again.

There is evidence, from another sector, that new approaches can bring dividends. The police have dealt with over 4,000 minor offences in the last nine months by the use of discretionary disposals.

Instead of pursuing these offences through the courts, they can be dealt with by offenders apologising to their victims and paying for criminal damage. This system works if both the victim and the offender agree to this approach, and it means that police spend much less time on bureaucracy.

Mr Ford's latest proposal may lead to similar success, or not, but in the meantime it is important it is given a fair hearing by all sides.

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