Tag Archives: Howard league

What’s the Point?

You cannot deter people from committing crime. This is, I know, a BIG statement. It is also entirely unscientific, has no basis in research whatsoever and is probably wrong.  

Yet this is what a look around life tells me. Everyone knows that motoring offences carry points on your licence, a fine, increased insurance premiums and the possibility of a driving ban. Yet most drivers offend, whether it is gambling on the drive home after two pints or the almost ubiquitous speeding, the prospect of punishment does little to deter people who would otherwise describe themselves as law abiding. 

Burglars know that prison is the likely consequence of offending. Sentences for burglary seem to steadily rise. Yet people still burgle. They are prepared to gamble on the prospects of getting caught rather than on the consequence of getting caught. Which may be a gamble that is as simple as odds and evens, if stories about Scence of Crime Officers being deployed dependent on house number are right. If you want to deter burglars, do not boost sentences, boost clear up rates. 

And then you have those who are desperate. Drug users, who knew that drugs were bad for them (and before you tut and get all “they knew the risks and are the author of their own misfortune” you should put out your cigarette, put down your pint and leave that diabetes inducing doughnut alone) and knew that they were illegal offend because they see no other way. It is an offence committed entirely in the moment, thinking little of the consequences and thinking only of the need they have. Replace drugs with poverty and the drivers for crime are often the same. 

This is not to say that punishment is wrong and has no place in the Criminal Justice System. Clearly actions have consequences and a democratic society requires proportionate punishment for those that transgress our laws. The key word there being proportionate. And that brings me to the Criminal Courts Charge. 

From time to time in my life at the Bar I have witnessed some pretty daft pieces of legislation. I have experienced sentencing changes that were a nonsense. I have seen the folly of improbably harsh punishments such as IPP. It is difficult, however, to recall anything quite as arbitrarily unfair and impractical as the Charge. 

It is not as if the politicians had no clue as to how daft this was. I have lost count of the number of times Judges explained the Victime Surcharge with a degree of bemused exasperation to men and women who had little prospect of paying the hundred and odd pounds that now fell due. And, on occasion, have seen a Judge fall somewhere in between embarrassment and mirth in declaring that the Surcharge bites on someone they had just sentenced to 24 years in custody. 

But the Charge takes the biscuit. It wins the prize for political stupidity. 

Let me give you an example. I saw a man being sentenced last week. He was a recidivist, without doubt one of those men who has existed throughout time. A man for whom mental health difficulties, personality disorders, circumstance and sheer unpleasantness meld together to fix him firmly as one of society’s wrong-uns. 

He was being sentenced for a miscellany of relatively minor offences. One of them included a Bail Act offence. He had, during the currency of the proceedings, been bailed “within the precincts of the court”. Being the man that he is he failed to heed the terms of that prohibition. He wandered out of the building, he failed to return on time and proceedings were delayed until he graced the court with his presence (albeit that he did come back the same day, just late).

This falls somewhere at the lower end of Bail Act offences. It undermines the system and needs punishment. So the Judge imposed some relatively short custodial sentences and marked the Bail Act offence with two weeks imprisonment to run consecutively.

Then came the kicker. The hearing that he had wandered off from had taken place on 14th April. Which meant he qualified for the Criminal Court Charge. A whopping £900. 

I have no words that can accurately describe the look on the Judicial face when this was brought to the Judge’s attention. The one thing I can say is that the look was not in the least bit judicial. You could read in the Judge’s dark demeanour that he did not like having his hands tied by the imposition of a swingeing financial penalty outwith his discretion. You could see that the Judge understood that there was no prospect of this man ever paying this sum, unless he committed more crime in order to pay it. 

The taxpayer is well served by the work of the courts. A democratic society will never rid itself of crime and needs crime to be punished. But society is badly served by something as pointless and arbitrary as the Charge.

Would the defendant in my example have obeyed the Judge’s order to remain because he knew he faced a £900 Charge? Nope. Prison did not deter him. He just is not built that way. Is the taxpayer ever going to get £900 from him to pay for the part of the proceedings related to the Bail Act Offence? Not a chance of it. Has the imposition of this Charge led to a layer of administrative cost in recording the Charge, monitoring its non-payment and compiling statistical tables related to its income generating performance? Absolutely. The taxpayer will end up paying more in relation to this offender because of the Charge. Admittedly only a few pounds more, but what a waste of resources. 

As an aside, had this man leapt onto the bench and murdered the Judge on the 14th April and subsequently pleaded guilty his Charge then would have been……exactly the same. £900. Nothing brings the court system into greater disrepute than something which causes it to descend into farce. 

That the punishment should fit the crime is an expression of an innate truth. The Charge is an expression of a policitian’s inane folly. If the Charge has to remain a feature of the legal landscape make it discretionary. Better still, scrap it all together. 

The Bald Truth

Yesterday I wrote about the crisis in the CJS (here). It is a crisis that the boss, Chris Grayling, is turning a Nelsonian eye to. There is no crisis in our prisons, there is no problem in our criminal justice system.

The boss and I share one thing in common. We are baldies. We could be Britain’s foremost Mitchell brother look-a-likes. Whenever my baldness is remarked upon I respond by saying that I have “an even covering of hair”. It is just that every hair is about an inch away from one of its colleagues.

So it is time Chris and I faced the truth. We are balder than Right Said Fred and we both work in a system that is on its knees.

I have a client that I have been representing in the same case for some considerable time. He is now serving a very long sentence. The case is now wending its way through the confiscation process.

I recently had a conference with said client. He is not a left wing campaigning charity. He is a man at the receiving end of our penal system. The boss would probably call him a customer. Or a stakeholder. Or a unit.

So we were having a bit of general chitchat. He was not in the least bit concerned about the book ban. That is for left wing do-gooders. What he was bothered about was the fact that his family could no longer send him protein powder.

So what? Why should we allow some bodybuilding criminal protein powder? What next? Steroids?

Save for the fact he is not a bodybuilder. He is a middle aged, slightly soft around the middle, bloke. He used to have protein powder sent to him because the quality of the food was so poor. I felt a bit ashamed. I can understand the concerns that prisons should not be hotels but they should not be Victorian workhouses.

He told me lots of prisoners had protein powder sent to them. Then, he told me, that he could still buy protein powders from the mail order system. So I was able to dampen my left wing hysteria. Apparently, coincidental to the ban on him receiving such things from his family, the price from the internal shop rocketed. Prisons do make good business.

Then he went on to tell me about the rehabilitation work he was doing. That roughly equated to the hairs on my head. There were simply insufficient staff for the prisoners to do anything constructive. In fact, he told me, all it takes is a couple of prison officers to be absent and the whole wing shut down.

How often did that happen? Well, all it took was two people to ring in sick on their wing. Or a few wing staff across the whole prison to ring in sick so that the staff had to be reorganised across a few wings. Or for a relatively unplanned prisoner escort to be required to a hospital or some such.

And the result? He was locked in his cell. Discipline on the wing, he said, was non-existent. This was not a prison looking to rehabilitate. This was a warehouse of humanity. A storage facility of criminals. All just waiting to return to their former life.

So Chris Grayling is right when he says that there is no crisis in the prison system. If by no crisis he means that there are still beds available for new faces or that the rooftops of every prison are not awash with bare chested protesters.

However prisons are not producing the results society needs. Locking prisoners up for 23 hours with food so poor even they recognise its lack of nutritional content is going to reform precisely zero souls. That is not a crisis. That is a national scandal.

A Game of Penal Sardines

Another week, another crisis in the criminal justice system. This week it is prison overcrowding. The Chief Inspector of Prisons has warned about the crisis that is building. The prison estate would appear to be bursting at the seams. Figures from the Howard League show there are 85,410 prisoners being held this week. This has risen by nearly 1,000 in a month. Importantly this is 12% above Certified Normal Accommodation. Some prisons (Swansea, Leicester, Lincoln) are approaching double their CNA number of prisoners.

So our Minister of Justice reacts by saying the public want to see more offenders being locked up. He says there is no problem at all. He has 1,000 empty prison spaces just waiting to satiate the public appetite for more porridge. The CNA, he says, is simply a figure that just represents an ideal of prisoners one to a cell. What if a few prisoners have to bunk up together? It is times of austerity. We all need to pitch in.

Now this is either deliberately stupid or stupidly stupid. The capacity of a prison is not about how many square feet there are to squeeze in a mattress or two on the floor. It is not about just prisoners having a bit of privacy. Prisons are not just dormitories. They have health care, staffing, catering, educational and rehabilitative functions. And those functions are impaired when a prison is operating at 150% of its capacity. It means there are not enough staff to ensure safety. It means there are not enough staff to provide education and rehabilitation. Prisoners are locked up for more and more hours per day. It is a tinderbox of potential trouble in the wings and it is a ticking time bomb of offenders waiting to return to the community with prison having done nothing to improve them. So the Minister must know it is not just about how many prisoners are asleep in one cell.

He also tells us that he is taking urgent steps to provide more prison places to meet the rising need. So on the one hand we do not have a problem and on the other hand we are preparing ourselves to cope with that problem. And it is a rising need that he seems to be proud of. A rising need because we are locking more people up and that is what the public want. His Government’s policies are causing the problem. It would appear that the huge prison population is a badge of success.

The answer should not be about locking up more and more people in an effort to woo voters. The answer is a brave political move that is beyond our craven, power hungry ambitious politicians of today.

Recently I represented a man of good character who had a job. He was involved in a theft that stole £4,000. Everything about it told you it was a one-off in his life. He was sent to immediate custody for 32 weeks. There is nothing wrong with the sentence per se. Other than it is pointless. He was let out 8 weeks in to his sentence. on a home detention curfew. Using the average figures that imprisonment costs the taxpayer, that little stay cost the State £7,000. The tag is going to cost a further £1,000. And he lost his job. So will now be claiming benefits.

He has to be let out that early because the system recognises he poses no threat and they needed his place for someone else. Had he not gone to prison he would have cost us less to punish. Meanwhile he could have repaid some of the money stolen and the some of the cost of prosecuting him. The Government want the headline that someone who steals £4,000 goes to custody. They just have not got the resources to lock someone up for that length of time. And they know, in their heart of hearts, that it achieves nothing.

So the Minister should not be spouting off about what the public wants. He should not be pretending the prison estate does not have a problem. He should be ensuring that useless, expensive, pointless short sentences for people of previous good character who pose no threat to the public are a thing of the past. But that is not a headline he likes. Sense will take a back seat to image.

The Book-Keeper and the Man

A small bespectacled man sat quietly in the corner, seemingly trying to blend into the background. This is how he had existed in life on the outside. Never standing out, never making a fuss, never being noticed. At first that had just been a natural shyness but later in life it was a quality which meant he was the last person the company had suspected of extracting over £100k from company coffers. In the first few days on the inside it had been a useful defence mechanism. Now a year into his sentence he sat untroubled in the far corner.

The chair opposite him was roughly pulled from beneath the table and he looked up from his reverie to see a shaven headed mass of muscle before him, the reds and blues of a tattoo dancing up his bulldog neck from the blue prison-issue sweatshirt.

“Bazboy tells me that you are the one everyone calls ‘The Book-Keeper’,” the shaven headed man spoke in a hushed, menacing voice.

“That is correct. But mother would much prefer you to call me Arthur,” the other man replied, not looking up from his jigsaw.

“Bazboy said you were the man to come to to be sorted out with some gear,” the bald thug whispered conspiratorially.

“It is true that I have a certain knack in the obtaining of particular articles, but you will have to be more specific than just ‘gear’ my dear fellow,” the Book-Keeper still concentrated on his puzzle.

“Drugs man, innit. Anything man. I don’t care. It’s been a while you see,” the voice softened, became a little pleading.

For the first time Arthur, the one known as the Book-Keeper looked up, his eyes suddenly animated. “Oh yes, I think I can help you there, most definitely. Perhaps Hunter S Thompson or Jack Kerouac would do the job.”

“Sorry mate, slow down. I am new to this gaffe, don’t know the words used here do I? Kerouac… is that Ketamine, and that Hunter thing, is that H? I could go some H to be honest.”

“My dear fellow, Hunter S Thompson wrote ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, surely the finest book written about and under the influence of controlled substances ever. And I have a copy, just for you. Only paperback mind you….”

“Are you taking the piss?” a sudden note of anger flashed across the voice of the customer.

“I am sorry, were you looking for something a bit more non-fiction? Perhaps Howard Marks’s ‘Mr Nice’?” asked the Book-Keeper.

“Bazboy told me you were the go to man if I wanted anything hot in this nick,” the voice now sounded a little exasperated.

“You don’t seem like the Fifty Shades of Gray type and I’m afraid Smithy took my last copy anyway,” sighed Arthur. He pushed his spectacles back up his nose and returned his attention to the half completed picture of cats on the table.

“Not Fifty Shades of bleedin’ Gray, I mean things like a mobi…..”

The Book-Keeper interrupted, “I am beginning to guess that you are not referring to Melville’s tale of the whale, Moby-Dick?”

“Too right I am not. I am talking mobile phones and drugs. Hot gear. Proper prison stuff,” the man sat back in his chair with a deflated air, “and I was told you were the man who could sort me out.”

The Book-Keeper took his glasses off and pinched his nose. “My dear man, you are new here aren’t you?” He placed the glasses back on his face and continued, “I am a dealer in the hard to come by stuff. You want a phone, go and ask Bonehead but don’t ask him where he keeps it. You want drugs? They are easy. It rains tennis balls stuffed with drugs every night of the week and Mrs Jones, the blonde officer, well she has a romantic leaning towards Billy the Whizz on wing B so she brings in all the speed he needs to keep his nickname going hidden inside her bra.”

The Book-Keeper lent back in his seat, “But I, I only deal in the real deal. Books. The stuff that had to be banned. And since the library is only open now and then there is such a demand for what I can offer. The devil makes work for idle hands and all that.”

“How do you get hold of them?” the man asked, strangely curious.

“Smuggled inside kilos of cocaine,” the Book-Keeper allowed himself a little chuckle, “just my little joke. These days they are placed inside hollowed out Playstations.”

“Blimey, I had no idea books were so, well, important.”

“A book, my friend, is an education all in itself. The redemption tales of Dickens and Dostoyevsky, the true life inspiration of Christopher Reeves in ‘Still Me’ or the fantasy escapism of Harry Potter. All food for the soul. All training for the mind. And there is nothing better for business than a little bit of prohibition. So what will it be my friend, a little hit of Amis or a small tote of Betjeman?”

And so the Book-Keeper and the man struck a deal. The road to rehabilitation was mapped out in the pages of a novel.