By Bright, Martin
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 135, No. 4798
It was difficult not to get a sinking feeling from the news that John Reid, the Home Secretary, had ordered his junior minister Gerry Sutcliffe to travel to the US to look at Megan's Law, the controversial measure that permits parents in certain states to know whether child sex offenders are living in their area.
In response to the latest tabloid hysteria, the hapless Sutcliffe will make his trip over the summer. If he has any sense, he will conclude, like others at the Home Office before him, that it should not be introduced in the UK. As Terry Grange, the eminently sensible chief constable of Dyfed-Powys pointed out, five people have been killed by vigilantes in the US this year alone, following disclosures under Megan's Law.
This is unlikely to stop our government from turning to America for inspiration. Ministers have wholeheartedly embraced its privatised penal culture, which means US-based corporations now make millions from Britain's exploding prison population. We are told that "US-style" night courts could provide instant justice for violent drunks. The new Serious and Organised Crime Agency has been dubbed the British CIA because it is supposedly modelled on that institution. Reid has even inherited a top American cop, the former Boston police chief Paul Evans, who runs the Police Standards Unit at the Home Office.
Spot the linguists
In a speech in Bristol designed to launch a national debate on crime (yes, another one), the Prime Minister will say he is planning to extend "community courts" being trialled in Liverpool and Salford, which are designed to give local people a greater say in justice: yet another idea imported from the US.
In America there are nearly 700 prisoners for every 100,000 of the population, compared to 140 here; the murder rate in Washington, DC is around 30 times that of London. Surely it would make more sense to look at what they are doing right in Brussels, where the murder rate is less than one per 100,000, or send a minister to Norway, where the rate of incarceration is half that of this country. So why does the government insist on imposing ideas on us from a country which provides a terrifying model of how not to run a criminal justice system? The answer, it seems, is simple: language.
"In America they speak and read English, it's as crude as that," says Denis MacShane, the former Europe minister, who has the distinction of speaking French, German and Spanish. …