Why tinkering with justice should alarm us all

BBC NEWS | UK | Juries learn sex offenders’ past

An election is coming up. By all accounts it will be on May 5 2005. So we now face the cyclical clamour of the Tories and nearly-new Labour trying to prove that they are tougher on crime and kinder on health. Usually this comes down to promises for building more prisons, giving more money to the police, short, sharp shocks, and other repackagings of the same old solutions.

But this time one-careful-owner Labour has surpassed itself. Juries in trials for theft and for child sex abuse will soon be told of the offender’s previous convictions.

Mm. Interesting choice, that. Theft and Child Sex Abuse. Why not Car-jacking and Internet Scamming? There’s a strong whiff of which crimes the public is most cross about in this policy decision. More government by polling, but we will let it pass.

We will let it pass, because the core of my complaint against this particular popularity stunt is not that it is a typical second-hand Labour random act of policy, but that it is tinkering with the core of justice itself.

Figure it any way you like. If you’ve been fingered before, the police will already have you marked as a potential suspect. Fine. This is necessary for proper investigation. ‘Form’ as the coppers say. But when juries are told as well, your past convictions are, as it were, fed into the system twice.

If there is genuinely reasonable doubt about the evidence presented in a trial, the accused should go free. This is fundamental to justice. Can the quality of the evidence be improved by providing details of previous convictions? Surely not. But the jury’s mind might be swayed. Suddenly we are looking at a system where other considerations are influencing the jury’s mind about a question of fact.

And suddenly we are staring at the face of a completely different kind of justice.

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