Reid Wants Army to Discipline Young Offenders

John Reid wants to call in the army to deal with young offenders to “provide structure to their lives”, according to leaked internal Home Office emails. He also believes that offenders sentenced to community punishments should demonstrate their “penance and contrition” and be put in uniform so they can be seen to be repaying the community. The leaked emails reveal the new home secretary’s highly punitive agenda and the fact that he wants to go even further than the 24-point “get tough” criminal justice package he unveiled on Thursday.

The correspondence shows that the Home Office’s most senior official, David Normington, has already been told that internal reaction has been negative. “I know from the comments to me in emails and on my blog that there will be some scepticism about whether anything will change,” he told staff on Thursday.

But Mr Reid is determined to go further: “We must not allow any signal that we are softening stance on crime, or that the prison population pressures are diverting people from prison,” the home secretary told an internal meeting of senior ministers and officials preparing the proposals.

The minute by his private secretary, Paul Wylie, says he told them the strategy should make clear he wanted to be “tough on serious cases, tough on less serious cases, but not prison (why should the taxpayer pay for them to be accommodated/watered in prison)”.

The leaks reveal Mr Reid has ordered a “two-page note” to be drawn up within a matter of days on every issue, no matter how complex. The officials instructed to produce “two-page notes” on plans to call in the army and to ensure that offenders demonstrate penance and contrition are requested to do so within 12 days.

“The HS [home secretary] would like us to to think outside the box for targeting young offenders. He is keen on looking at involving the army to provide structure to young people’s lives. Please can you provide a brief explanation of existing punishments/schemes and a recommendation to show how to take this forward,” Mr Reid’s personal secretary told one of the officials concerned.

He says that the home secretary is very interested in exploring ways of increasing visibility of offenders doing unpaid work in the community such as by wearing uniforms: “Unpaid work would have to be portrayed as penance and contrition, and for them to be seen as genuinely paying back to the community.”

Harry Fletcher of Napo, the probation union, said last night: “Not even Michael Howard, the toughest home secretary in recent history, considered using the army to supervise young offenders, and the notion of ‘penance and contrition’ as the cornerstone of unpaid work is extraordinary. Orders need to be seen as purposeful by offenders and raise self-esteem, not severely diminish it.”

The leaked emails came as the government announced further reform plans, including proposals for “next-day justice” to ensure the courts deal with 500 offences such as domestic violence, possessing knives, shoplifting and noise nuisance, within 24 to 72 hours from next year, and for “courts on the move” to be introduced. The travelling courts will start work in three locations this October and will use town halls and community centres to deal with quality of life crimes such as graffiti and criminal damage.

The emails also reveal that Lady Scotland, minister for criminal justice, privately blamed judges for the high-profile asylum and early release cases that so damaged the Home Office’s reputation.

“Baroness Scotland said that only section 9 judges could sit on the most serious trials, such as murder. However this was not the case on parole boards and immigration appeals panels; this disparity could account for some of the adverse decisions that have arisen recently.”

Plans to exclude judges who are not qualified to deputise in the high court [section 9] have not yet appeared.

The emails also reveal that Lady Scotland raised the issue of releasing thousands of minor offenders from prison to ease the overcrowding crisis with Mr Reid soon after he took office. “The HS was initially concerned about such a measure but would consider it if placed in an overall tough package within the National Offender Management Service bill.”

Mr Reid has since ruled out such a programme and, as he unveiled his 24-point law and order package on Thursday, the prison population in England and Wales reached a record high of 78,505 – up 415 in the past fortnight and just 1,000 below the system’s capacity.