Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Five Criminal Justice Innovations from my Year

Make justice accessible: Mobile courts in Abu Dhabi

Develop useful alternatives to prison that build skills and serve the public :
Community service offenders work on a fishpond  in Kenya

Put human rights at the heart of prisons: Mission of Uganda Prison service on wall at Mbale  

Turn outdated prisons into museums to educate: Crumlin Road Gaol Belfast

Or in the case of juvenile centres knock them down and use the bricks for art: 

Polk Correctional Facility  North Carolina 

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

2015 End of Term Criminal Justice Report: Some Signs of Promise but Must do Better

What should we make of 2015 as far as penal policy is concerned?  The new government has promised radical reforms at the heart of their agenda, but eye catching announcements like the closure of Holloway notwithstanding, we’ve yet to see much in the way of new policy or practice. As is always the case, there has been as much continuity as there has been change.

The controversial Transforming Rehabilitation reforms that placed 70% of probation work into the private sector got underway in earnest in February since when almost all prison sentences, however short, have been followed by a mandatory period of supervision after release. Inspection reports in May and November found the new arrangements presented a mixed picture noting continuing mistakes in allocating cases between the Probation Service and Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), and variation in the quality of offender assessments. December’s revelation of serious failures by South Yorkshire CRC run by Sodexo confirms the impossible position faced by Paul McDowell who quit as Chief Inspector in February after it  had become known that he is married to the head of the company’s criminal justice operation.

Paul’s permanent replacement Glenys Stacey is due to start in the New Year and may wish to revisit the Inspectorate’s plan to discontinue monitoring the implementation of TR after March 2016- particularly if Sodexo fail to take remedial action and lose their contract in South Yorkshire. The National Audit Office plan to publish a report on value for money in the spring of 2016 but this looks too soon to be informative.  Proper scrutiny will be  essential   for a programme which NOMS former Director of Competition has recently described as untried, over complex and highly risky: “It is like watching people doing their best to organise the perfect train crash” he wrote in his book "Competition for Prisons Public or private?".

April saw reports that Sodexo were planning to replace CRC staff with automated kiosks and December saw Working Links reported to be planning large scale job cuts in their CRC's  in Wales and the West country, in part because numbers of cases are lower than forecast. In the context of these commercial woes it seems particularly unwise for the Magistrates Association to be relying on Working Links to help fill a hole in their budget- a conflict of interest that first came to light in May.

On prisons, new Justice Secretary Michael Gove surprised many with an impressive series of speeches promising progressive reforms, with backing from the very top of the Government. So far outline plans have emerged to replace old prisons with new and give Governors more freedoms but much of the detail must wait until next year. Gove won plaudits from reformers for reversing a series of his predecessor’s policies including the ban on books for prisoners, the secure college for young offenders and the criminal courts charge as well as a proposed prison training project in Saudi Arabia.

But at year end, there are signs the honeymoon may be over. Gove rejected almost a third of the recommendations made in Lord Harris’s review of self-inflicted deaths of young adults and has established a series of further reviews – on education and youth justice- which may not report until the summer of 2016. Nor will the new for old prisons plan deliver speedy change. Speeches aside, the new MoJ has not exactly hit the ground running.

The need for urgent action was made clear when outgoing prison Inspector Nick Hardwick reported on the worst outcomes for 10 years and more recent data suggest prisons are continuing to struggle with safety, violence and drugs - most recently it has emerged that the deployment of the National Tactical Response Group (NTRG) to deal with disturbances, has risen by more than 50 per cent in a year.  The prison population is projected to rise slightly less sharply over the next five years than was estimated last year, and Gove appears to have ruled out further reductions in staff numbers. But genuinely increasing education and rehabilitation opportunities will surely require a fall in prisoner numbers. While increased use of electronic tagging, greater opportunities for earned release and more aggressive repatriation of foreign nationals have been floated as options an overall strategy – such as justice reinvestment- is still lacking.

On the personnel front, Gove has brought ex NOMS supremo Sir Martin Narey onto the MoJ board to advise on prisons along with Sir Michael Barber who ran Tony Blair’s delivery unit. Narey’s intervention following the damning  independent inspection report on Rainsbrook STC can best be described as unwise while Barber found the space in his memoirs a few years back  to decry as absurd magistrates who avoided making custodial sentences because of their concern about the size of the prison population. Former counter terrorism police chief Peter Clarke will fill Nick Hardwick’s shoes inspecting prisons.

Elsewhere the House of Commons Justice Committee chaired by Bob Neill has started an interesting portfolio of work on young adults, the courts and restorative justice. The Committee is showing a promising critical spirit, censuring Gove for tapping up the successful candidates for the independent prison and probation inspection posts and calling for the criminal courts charge to be scrapped; ironically Neill was part of the standing committee  which voted down Labour amendments on the charge in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill in the last parliament.

 Relatively little has been heard on criminal justice from Labour since the election but that is likely to change once Gove shows more of his hand. Whether they support constructive reforms or seek, as they did with Kenneth Clarke, to portray him as soft on crime will be one of the interesting political dimensions next year.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Why We Need a Rehabilitation Devolution

Among the wealth of information provided by the latest edition of the Prison Reform Trust’s excellent Bromley briefing, two findings stand out. First is the catalogue of troubles experienced by adults in prison compared with the general population. Prisoners are 12 times more likely to have been taken into care and regularly played truant as a child; almost two thirds have used Class A drugs compared to 13% of the general population while prisoners are over three times more likely to have no qualifications, never to have worked, or be homeless prior to imprisonment.16% show symptoms of psychosis compared to just 4% of adults outside.

A second notable fact is that the reduction in the use of custody for juveniles over the last five years has saved the Youth Justice Board more than £300 million. Taken together, these findings suggest a strong case for developing a strategy to shift resources away from imprisonment towards the kind of community based measures which can prevent people becoming involved in crime and meet their many health and social care needs if they do so.

Addressing many of those problems-mental health, education, addiction, and homelessness- are almost always matters for local agencies and organisations whether in the public, voluntary or private sector.  In a report out today published by Transform Justice, I show how giving local authorities and communities greater financial and organisational responsibility for preventing and treating crime in their area could both help to reduce it and to minimise the use of expensive and often ineffective national resources such as courts and prisons.

Drawing both on lessons from the USA and domestic pilot projects, Rehabilitation Devolution argues that if local agencies are made responsible for paying the costs of incarceration, they are more likely to take steps to reduce its use. Local authorities have shown they can use funds to lower the use of custody and making them pay for the costs of juveniles held on remand has contributed to a fall in numbers.  American states like Pennsylvania have established a formula that requires a percentage of cost savings achieved through reductions in prison numbers to be reinvested in public safety improvements while in North Carolina so called Justice Reinvestment initiatives have helped reduce prison numbers by 8%.
What does this suggest for England and Wales? The report proposes transferring responsibility for meeting the entire costs of custody for under 18's to local authorities and Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC’s), work to identify the best ways of transferring that responsibility to a more local level for young adult and women offenders, and inviting PCC's to chair new Justice and Safety Partnerships( JSP).  Involving judges, probation, prison, local government and health, the JSP’s would introduce greater regional voice in the system and provide a body to which criminal justice budgets might be devolved over time. The report also argues that as a localisation agenda moves forward local commissioners would not simply buy what is currently provided but develop the kind of  responses better able to serve their community’s needs. So rather than paying for  Feltham YOI, local authorities might be able to commission a less damaging environment for their troublesome teenage boys .

While this may look like bureaucratic and possibly unwelcome organisational reform, its purpose is to incentivise the bodies best able to deal with crime and offending to do so creatively and cost effectively. George Osborne’s spending review may have included an eye catching plan to close Holloway but modernising the prison estate apart, the Spending Review looks much like business as usual. New for old prisons may well be necessary but it is not sufficient to address our problems of penal excess.

Reducing sentence lengths is the most direct but politically riskiest strategy for reducing prison numbers - although the risks might be mitigated by intensifying regimes so a prison sentence of a certain length in the future counts for more than it does now.

 Alongside this, aligning the systems for sanctioning offenders with the measures which can prevent crime and reduce offending could help bring down the numbers in court and custody.  By doing so we can end up not with a near 90,000 prison population forecast last week but something approaching the norm for Western Europe which might see it closer to 50,000.                 

Friday, 20 November 2015

Gove Calls for the Police

To many people’s surprise, expectations of prison reform over the next five years are currently sky high. It’s not just Justice Secretary Michael Gove who has promised fundamental change.  The Prime Minister told the Tory conference that “when prisoners are in jail, we have their full attention for months at a time – so let’s treat their problems, educate them, put them to work”. How will we know whether these noble aspirations are translated into reality for the 85,000 prisoners locked up across the country?

We will know next week whether the Justice ministry has secured sufficient funds from the Treasury to make Gove’s promises look plausible but will probably have to wait a few more weeks for the comprehensive prison reform plan that officials are putting together. In the longer term we will need to rely on the reports of the independent Chief Inspector of Prisons to know whether conditions of detention improve and opportunities for rehabilitation increase in the way the government hope.

Today we learned who is likely to be making those judgements - former Met Police Counter Terrorism Commander Peter Clarke. Clarke has been nominated as a preferred candidate as Chief Inspector by Gove and although he will appear for a scrutiny hearing before the Justice Select committee – as will Glenys Stacey who has been put forward as Chief Inspector of Probation- chances are that the former Scotland Yard boss will be appointed in due course to replace Nick Hardwick.  Last year Gove appointed Clarke to lead an investigation of Islamist infiltration of the governance of schools in Birmingham. Although the report arguably helped end Gove’s term at education, he and Clarke seem to share views about the widespread nature of extremism in Muslim communities.

Whatever one thinks of Clarke, it is disappointing that the opportunity has not been taken to make the post of Chief Inspector of Prisons more independent of government. Last year Hardwick told the House of Commons Public Administration Committee that being appointed by and reporting to the Ministry of Justice is “by its nature incompatible with full independence” and proposed direct accountability to Parliament. The Committee recommended as much in their report but just before the election, change was rejected, with the MoJ arguing that allowing the inspectorate separate offices and a website plus more freedom to recruit its staff were sufficient to “reflect the unique watchdog status of HMI Prisons”.

At the same time, as if to amplify  concerns about independence, the Justice Committee were involved in a spat with Chris Grayling over the selection of Hardwick’s successor. The fact that the two "independent" members of the selection panel were revealed to be tory activists, led the Commissioner of Public Appointments to promise to amend the rules about panel membership. In the event no appointment was made but now that it has been, the Justice Committee will no doubt want to know who made it.

What else might they ask when Clarke comes before them for a pre appointment hearing? Most of their questions will no doubt focus on the skills, experience and values he will bring to a post which many consider as one of the foremost human rights monitors in the country. But there are three specific matters they would do well to raise.

First they will need to establish whether Mr Clarke has any family relationships that might cause a conflict of interest, such as that which ended Paul McDowell’s time as Probation inspector (and about which the Committee regrettably failed to inquire at the material time).

Second they might want to ask how being an ex-police officer could affect his judgement. After all inspection of police custody suites is an important role of the prison inspectorate these days. Former prison service staff are ineligible to be Chief Inspector of Prisons, but ex police officers seemingly not. His investigation skills will not be in question but will his impartiality?

Finally, they may want to ask a bit not only about how his experience in counter terrorism might affect his attitudes to the treatment of Muslim prisoners but about his other police roles too. For example he was deputy then acting head of personnel at the Met in the early 2000’s.  Today the Met admitted that that there had been no proper management of the deployments of undercover officers , even after the introduction of supposedly stringent legal controls. Was that debacle any part of Clarke’s responsibilities? Lets hope not otherwise he will be busy contributing to Lord Justice Pitchford's inquiry.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Dear George

Spending Review 2015 and Prisons

As you will know from the  Party Conference, David has made prison reform one of the key domestic priorities for our government. In my own speech in Manchester and several others (most recently last night at the Howard League) I have emphasised how rehabilitation is the most important aspect of imprisonment. Better education, together with improved mental health and substance misuse treatment in prison are essential to achieving our policy aim.

Unfortunately I have discovered that the prison system is in a parlous state, often struggling to provide safety and decency let alone equipping prisoners with the attitudes and skills they need to put offending behind them. In the circumstances there are simply no options for making further economies in the running costs of prisons. As I told the Howard League that journalists should have unfettered access to prisons, our scope for varnishing the ugly truth will be increasingly limited too.

As you know , I plan to replace some of our Victorian city centre prisons with larger, modern and more economic establishments  although your officials will no doubt tell you that that this has been proposed by pretty well all of my predecessors since the last century and will take a good deal of time and careful planning to achieve. I will also be making much better use of new technology although again you may feel that you have "heard all this before".

As you have been encouraging departments to consider radical structural reforms, I do however have two more proposals which will help us to reduce cost in the system while improving its quality.

The first is to look at transferring responsibility for elements of the criminal justice budget to a more local level with incentives for Police and Crime Commissioners and local government to do more. Boris has been doing some interesting crime prevention work in partnership with local authorities in London and I am sure you would see the sense of our new Metro Mayors playing a greater role. If they can reduce demand on the courts and on the prison and probation services, over time we can cut spend responsibly and sustainably- not by making the system “cheaper not smaller” as my immediate predecessor sought to do, but "smaller and better". There’s a rather good report by Transform Justice about so called Justice Reinvestment  here and I understand a follow up will be published shortly.

The second idea is to cut substantially the lengths of prison sentences served by all but the gravest offenders. We keep people in prison much longer than our European neighbours - as Herr Schauble might have told you- at significant financial, social and ethical cost.  

If we are to keep our supporters and the media on side, we will need some cover for this. What I am thinking of is making the serving of a sentence very much more demanding than it is currently so that offenders have to serve less of it.

I am not advocating the kind of short sharp shock military regimes that Willie Whitelaw and Michael Howard experimented with in the past. Rather it will be the education, employment and therapeutic interventions which will be intensive.  Expecting prisoners to work a full day and to participate in education and rehabilitation activities in the evenings and at weekends would make a prison sentence count for much more, not only for prisoners but in the eyes of courts and the public.  I will ask the Sentencing Council to recalibrate the going rate for all of the main of the offences in the light of the more exacting nature of the penalty of imprisonment.

As you will appreciate, establishing the necessary regimes will require a short term increase in funds so that adequate numbers of staff can be deployed. This will not be welcome news to you but the rise will be easily offset over time by not only averting the need for new prisons – the population is forecast to rise to 90,000 by the end of the parliament – but by actually reducing the number of prisoners.  50,000 is what the Justice Committee recommended a few years ago and that’s what I’d like to aim for.  By simultaneously cutting the length of stay but  enhancing the rehabilitative impact of that stay it should be possible. I believe its known as a double whammy.

Yours Ever,


Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Residential Assessment

When I stepped down as a member of the Youth Justice Board in 2006, I published a paper suggesting a wide programme reforms that would improve the way we prevent and respond to youth offending. Amongst the proposals was shifting responsibility for youth justice to the Education Department and looking at how residential provision within children’s services, education and health settings could, in appropriate cases, be made more widely available to young people in conflict with the law.

I was interested to see that the DfE review of residential care announced today includes not only children’s homes (both open and secure) but the full gamut of settings in which young people can find themselves living. These include “hostels and supported lodgings, residential special schools, care homes, NHS provision, family centres or mother and baby units, and young offenders institutions or prison”. The review will explore “when and for which children residential care settings of all types should be used”. It’s an ambitious, overdue and important agenda – as a 2003 study noted “historically whether the problem child has been cared for, punished, educated or treated has often been a matter of chance, depending upon which individuals in which agency happened to pick up his or her case.”

There are however two oddities about the review. The first is that a review of youth justice is already underway, announced in September by Justice Secretary Michael Gove. This will be considering inter alia “the delivery models for detaining young people remanded or sentenced to custody and for supervising and rehabilitating young offenders in the community… and the interaction with wider services for children and young people”. These are precisely the services which the DfE review will be looking at.  The centres of gravity of the two reviews are different of course but there is substantial overlap. Let’s hope there is scope for some joint activities between the two reviews as they consider the kind of residential options which might work best for young offenders living away from home .

The other oddity concerns the leadership of these reviews. The MoJ’s youth justice review is being led by a former head teacher, Charlie Taylor and the DfE residential care inquiry is headed up by former prisons chief Martin Narey, (who now sits on the MoJ board). Perhaps this apparent paradox will help ensure that the pieces of work are complementary in scope and consistent in message; or at least avoid the kind of departmental turf wars that  used to characterise policy on the care of troubled and troublesome children.

Martin has plenty of child care experience running Barnardo’s and subsequently advising the Government on adoption and on social work.  I'd like to have seen more transparency in the review documentation about the work he has done in the past for private security giant G4S.    After all the firm runs children’s homes as well as a secure training centre, and presumably stand to gain or lose depending on the outcome of the review. For the avoidance of doubt, Martin and the DfE should make it clear that he has severed his links with the organisation.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Brave New World or False Dawn? The Tory Agenda on Prison Reform

I haven’t checked but I’d guess that prison policy has seldom made it into a Prime Minister’s Tory party conference speech. On the face of it, David Cameron’s promise that “this is going to be a big area of social reform in the next five years” should be hugely welcomed by those of us who want to see radical improvements in the way we punish people in conflict with the law.

There’s no denying the Conservatives have come a long way since I (and Cameron as it happens) worked in the Home Office twenty years ago. When then Home Secretary Michael Howard (for whom Cameron worked as special adviser) announced in 1993 that prison works, he invited a victim of rape to address the conference. Yesterday Michael Gove was preceded by an ex offender made good and went on to say that “the best criminal justice policies are good welfare, social work and child protection policies”.

So are we about to enter a golden age of change in which offences are decriminalised, vulnerable people diverted away from the courts, greater use made of community based sentences and shorter prison terms served in genuinely rehabilitative facilities?  

Three big question marks hang over the reform policy. First of course is the strength of the political will behind it. Gove may have complained yesterday that those sent to prison spend their sentences in enforced idleness but he was quoting almost word for word what Kenneth Clarke had told the conference five years ago. Despite Coalition with a party with a track record of commitment to penal  reform , prison policy and practice was something of a disaster between 2010 and 2015. Partly this was because Clarke did not last -and there must be long odds on Gove staying the course. One wonders how widely his reforming zeal is shared- presumably not by Mrs May.

The cynic may wonder too if the PM’s apparent conversion to the cause may be in part to prepare his troops for a climb-down on votes for prisoners.  Once Cameron has taken his anti-emetic, bowed to the inevitable need to allow some prisoners at least to vote,  perhaps the party will return to a more familiar stance – particularly if by then he has  lost Gove  his “the great Conservative Reformer”.

The second problem is the money.  Gove’s laudable desire for more education and help for prisoners to address the often catastrophic life experiences which have led them into jail does not come cheap. Even training prisons for young offenders – the highest priority in a sensible system- have been pared back so that almost half of prisoners are kept in their cells all day. On the day Gove made his speech, the Prison Inspectorate was describing Aylesbury YOI as having a very poor regime that fosters inactivity and indolence. The reason? Chronic staff shortages.

With at least 25% further cuts to come, Gove will have to explain sooner or later how he will do more with less. He may have been able to conjure up a standing ovation by calling for better prisons but he’ll need to magic up some serious funds to create them. Selling off inner city jails may help but there are sequencing problems in that strategy - developers won’t take kindly to Gove’s brand of sitting tenants.    The cynic may wonder too whether Gove’s plan to give Governors greater responsibilities may be a way of sloughing off his own. Without enough staff, the most able governors will struggle to cope let alone innovate.

There is of course a way of solving the money problem which is to lock up fewer people for shorter periods.  But this is the third and biggest problem. Cameron urged us to “get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this”. The reference may be to the "Smart on Crime" movement in the US, but there, behind the neutral sounding slogan is some pretty serious “let em out”. Indeed the Justice Department is about to release 6,000 drug offenders serving terms now considered way too harsh.

Yet sentencing reform does not seem on the agenda here at all and restrictions being introduced on cautioning fly in the face of the first smart on crime principle which is to prioritise prosecutions on the most serious cases.

It may be that the government will be able to pursue alternatives to prison for low level non- violent crimes; Cameron suggested that “where it makes sense, let’s use electronic tags to help keep us safe and help people go clean”. But let’s remember David Blunkett was heralding tags as Prisons without Bars a decade ago and they have delivered considerably less in the meantime. And diverting short term prisoners away from custody doesn't save you much in the great scheme of things.

Where the Coalition government has taken action is in trying to improve re-entry to curb repeat offences. But the results of the introduction of post release supervision for all prisoners (let alone the impact of the wholesale re-organisation of the probation service deemed necessary to fund it) are not yet known.

Lack of evidence about success may not stand in the away of a similar regime change in the prison system. Cameron’s description of prisons as “a service run by the state that all too often fails and entrenches poverty” suggests radical change may be on the way. Whether it will bring with it radical improvement must be open to doubt.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Jailed for Watching Daytime TV: the Need for Prison Reform in Africa

In a recent report on over incarceration and overcrowding, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights has argued that that custodial sentences should be imposed as measures of last resort and applied proportionately to meet a pressing societal need.   A recent visit to East Africa illustrated that much more needs to be done if that is to be achieved in the region.

One 22 year old Tanzanian explained that he had been sentenced for watching television during the day- his offence seemed to be one of “idleness”.  Although his punishment was community service, this had only been imposed after he’d spent four days in prison. Throughout Africa prison appears regularly used to punish these kind of colonial era offences or for failures to comply with contemporary government regulations whether about conducting business, (such as operating a club without a licence) or obtaining fuel (such as making charcoal in the forest).

Most of the Kenyan cases we heard about involved illicit alcohol- brewing it, selling it, getting drunk on it even carrying it.  A presidential decree in July urged a crackdown on so called secondary alcohol and this is being vigorously enforced by local administrators. The country has a serious problem with drinks known as Changaa or Mugacho which, when adulterated have led to deaths by poisoning, blindness and what was described to us as a failure by men to carry out their husbandly duties.  But some at least of the drinks play a role in traditional customs at weddings, parties and other gatherings.  

Evidence outside a Kenyan Court

More than a third of the 300 women (and their 50 babies) we saw in Meru prison had been committed for a failure to pay large fines imposed for alcohol related offences of one sort or another.  While many are likely to see their sentences commuted to community service through a High Court “Decongestion Programme”, using criminal justice to crack down on the problem has created additional hardships on those who make their living by producing it and put considerable pressure on an already overstretched prison system. 

That system still suffers from the persistent problem of excessive pre- trial detention; almost 800 of the 1200 men locked up at Meru were awaiting trial. Some were charged with serious and non bailable crimes but more than half, according to the Superintendent, were facing charges for petty offences. One barrier to their release is that magistrates worry about being thought corrupt if they free a defendant. Another is that, if they do so, the police are unwilling to pursue him should he flee. The result is unaffordable bail and routine remands in custody, sometimes for longer than any likely sentence.

Some defendants choose to bear the miserable conditions rather than change their plea, either through determination to maintain their innocence, fear of mob justice in the community or to benefit from the limited food and shelter unavailable to them outside. Judicial reform and performance management initiatives in both Kenya and Tanzania look so far to have failed to tackle some of the underlying dysfunction in the countries’ criminal justice processes. Indeed it may have made things worse. One magistrate told us his target of completing 250 cases a year provided a disincentive to adjourn cases for a report on an offender’s suitability for an alternative sanction.         

There look to be some relatively easy prison reform wins; Kenya has no remission or parole, and Tanzania does not even subtract time spent on remand from the length of prison sentences.  Taking action on these are the kind of steps the UN Commissioner wants states to take to prison  overcrowding so that they "comply with their international obligations, and  guarantee detainees the dignity inherent to every human being"

Monday, 28 September 2015

Defining Decency Down

There were wry smiles among staff at the headquarters of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) last week. Apparently bailiffs turned up in Reception in pursuit of an unpaid debt. It took a senior legal adviser a couple  of hours to get them off the premises but at least the  furniture still seemed to be in place in the bit I visited anyway.

It doesn’t get much starker as an illustration of the financial pressures facing the Ministry of Justice but it wasn’t the only one to surface in the last few days. A far more serious example lies in Nick Hardwick’s inspectorate report into Cookham Wood, woeful  even by the standards we have sadly come to expect . High levels of violence, a backlog of disciplinary cases and worsening outcomes no longer shock as they should. All are symptoms surely of the need for greater numbers of capable staff to work with these troubled and troublesome boys in the care of the state.  The failure to provide enough well trained people is as much a sign of reckless cost cutting as are bailiffs at the door of hq.  

What did surprise was the response of the Youth Justice Board to the inspection, its Chief Executive pleased to see that inspectors had recognised the progress made at Cookham Wood  “which is especially encouraging in the light of the challenging and vulnerable cohort of young people whose needs the establishment seeks to address”. 

It’s true that the report commends certain improvements – in the reception process, safeguarding and resettlement for example. But progress? It is the deterioration in safety and in basic care which should really be worrying the YJB as the body that commissions the places at the establishment. In the inspectorate’s survey, only 14% of the boys said they had association every day and exercise in the fresh air was limited to 30 minutes a day, a breach of the best known international prison rule which requires double that. Many of the 25% of staff who were from other prisons “did not know the work, the institution or the boys.” Not long after the Inspectors visited, a boy died in Cookham Wood.  The YJB’s response to the findings looks like a case of “praising with faint condemnation”.

As Hardwick hints, all this is yet more evidence, if it were needed, that prison is no place for this age group. Yet if there is to be fundamental change, there is a need to be outraged by what is happening in places like Cookham Wood. The YJB , MoJ and NOMS are in danger of turning a blind eye to the impact of the budget cuts they oversee.  Given the state to which the youth custody sector has been reduced, looking to it to help the YJB find fresh savings imposed on it by the MoJ seems a poor call.

In one of his well- received pre-recess speeches Michael Gove  warned , in his philosophical way, that reforms to the criminal justice system should not be achieved by “defining deviancy down”- a phrase coined by Daniel Moynihan in the 1970’s to decry a permissive tendency to normalise what was once offensive. Whether or not he’s right on that, he certainly should not be defining decency down and accepting what is happening in prisons for young people. He should not be reviewing them- he should be planning to shut them. 

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

PS from America

The final leg of my Justice Reinvestment (JR) study tour took me to North Carolina where the Department of Public Safety provided a valuable insight into how their 2011 JR Act has brought down prison numbers and taken small but important steps to rebalance corrections away from incarceration and towards community based sanctions. There will be more of that in the report I’m preparing for Transform Justice who have commissioned the follow up to the paper I produced last year. I was struck today however by what has not changed and how in some respects at least the philosophical underpinnings of the American approach contrast so starkly with our own.

There is rightly growing concern in England and Wales about the criminal court charge and how it places a simply unaffordable burden on poor defendants and incentivises them to enter a guilty plea. When I mentioned it, American colleagues couldn't see what the fuss was about. 

In North Carolina, defendants are expected to pay not only a court cost ($180) but fees for time they spend in jail before trial- anything between $10 and $40 a day. If they have been represented by a public defender, they must reimburse the state for the attorney’s costs - $60 for an hours work in court, nearer $1000 if the case goes to trial.

But this is just the start. If they get Probation, offenders are expected to pay a supervision fee of $40 a month. If their sentence involves community service they pay a $250 fee while house arrest will set them back a one off bill of $90 plus $4.37 per day. CAM – Continuous Alcohol Monitoring in the form of a sobriety tag -runs closer to $15 per day- unsurprisingly it’s seldom used. Fees for courses required of those who drive while intoxicated are set by the providers at roughly $300-400 for 20 hours.

As in England and Wales, offenders may be fined (fines help to pay for the public schools system) while restitution is commonly ordered too- whatever it takes “to make the victim whole”. This will be the reimbursement of the value of stolen or damaged property and medical and counselling costs in cases of personal harm. This can run into hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Failure to pay these sums represents a violation of probation. Offenders cannot complete their orders until their account is clear. Not surprisingly, I heard that many low risk offenders who otherwise fully comply with probation reach the end of their orders in arrears. This is in spite of help they receive with budgeting and scheduling payments. Fortunately, judges seem to show some sense, prioritising restitution and suspending or writing off the other debts where failing to pay is not “wilful” and where efforts have been made to pay at least something.  But owing money to the justice system is surely an unnecessary block to rehabilitation. Up to half of people on probation have no driving license- it has often  been forfeited and they simply cannot afford  to clear the many debts they need to in order to get it back. In a country with very limited public transport, this is a huge disadvantage.

There is, I suppose, an argument for this approach- offenders have to be accountable and should literally pay for the consequences of their actions. It’s not the balance of responsibilities allocated between individual and the state that we are used to in the UK or indeed in Europe.  But it could well prove attractive to a conservative mindset which looks to roll back further the frontiers of state, shift costs from government to the citizen  and emphasise individual accountability irrespective of  social circumstances. I hope it's not an approach that Mr Gove finds attractive when he visits the US later this month..

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Another Letter from America

I spent Friday in the delightful city of Annapolis observing a session of the Maryland Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council. The sleepy colonial era state capital might be a slightly incongruous setting for discussions about improving the justice system’s response to crimes and misdemeanours on the mean streets of cities like Baltimore but there was no doubting the energy with which the Commission engaged  and interrogated a comprehensive presentation about its current performance.

A technical assistance team funded as part of the Federal Justice Reinvestment initiative (JRI) bombarded the meeting with data on trends in incarceration and recidivism and how well current practices across the state and its 24 counties comply with evidence about what works to reduce offending by adults.  The meeting was one of a series designed to enable the State to reform its law, policy and practice to obtain greater public safety, better value for money and less unnecessary use of imprisonment.

Two things stood out about the meeting. First is the range of participants. Representatives from all three branches of government took part – legislators from both parties and both houses, judges, prosecutors and public defenders  and a variety of executive agencies including police and corrections from state and county level. Such a wide ranging presence is not an accident. It is a requirement if States want to join the JRI and benefit from the federal support in diagnosing problems and proposing solutions.

Second, the type of reforms which the Council will consider are equally wide ranging. Three sub groups have been established to look at possible changes to sentencing, to release and re-entry arrangements and to the type of supervision available in the community.  They will work speedily to ensure proposals are on the table by year end. If Maryland follows the other 27 states who have worked on Justice Reinvestment, legislation will follow soon after. The reform measures introduced in these states have included, repeals of mandatory minimums and reductions in the going rate for certain crimes; increases in the ability of prisoners to earn early release and more generous parole eligibility and improvements. Resources freed up by the resulting reductions in prison numbers have funded more and better education and treatment programmes both in prison and the community.

A forthcoming report for Transform Justice will look at what might be learned from this approach in England and Wales. Many of the specific reforms made in US States are of course first attempts to start to unwind the catastrophic growth of incarceration seen over the last thirty years, an increase which makes our own prison population  increase over that period look extremely modest. But some of the principles of JR may well have a good deal of relevance.

Michael Gove’s announcement on Friday of a review of youth justice suggests for example that quite a lot might be learned about how best to go about introducing  reform in the justice field.. It is scarcely credible that the review he has ordered will not consider the age of criminal responsibility, the way young people are dealt with in the criminal courts or the youth sentencing framework.  Quite apart from the fact that the UK is in clear breach of international law by prosecuting children as young as ten in England and Wales, it is hard to see how a meaningful assessment can be made of how youth justice agencies are performing without considering the legal framework within which they are operating and the effectiveness of the sentences imposed on young people.

The whole thing may simply be a fig leaf to complete the unfinished business of abolishing the Youth Justice Board. But youth, and come to that adult, justice needs something much more comprehensive in scope along the lines of the exercises being conducted in respect of adult offenders across the US. 

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Letter from America

I’m in the US this week researching developments in criminal justice reform. It’s part of a project to update the report I prepared last year on Justice Reinvestment for Transform Justice. A few minutes into my first meeting, my interviewee looked down at his phone and told me he’d that minute received a text from the British Embassy inviting him to meet Justice Secretary Michael Gove when he’s in Washington DC later this month. I had to explain I had not been sent ahead as some sort of scout.

But the coincidence is perhaps not surprising. The election of a new Conservative government with savings to find in criminal justice and an interest in localism and devolution does provide a timely  opportunity to see whether the range of reforms undertaken in the name of Justice Reinvestment in more than 20 states - plus important changes at the Federal level -offer lessons for England and Wales.What might Gove learn about developments over here?

On the evidence of day one, most significant perhaps has been the changing conservative mind set on crime and punishment. At an American Enterprise Institute seminar this afternoon, Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner described federal prison policy as “financially unsustainable and morally irresponsible”. He argued not only that continuous increases to the list of federal offences did the nation no service but that mass incarceration has torn families apart. As a former Chair of the Judiciary Committee who oversaw much of the federal prison expansion in the 1990’s, his conversion to the cause of reform has taken many by surprise.

As with better known advocates  of Right on Crime such as former Republican speaker Newt Gingrich  a combination of budget pressures, ideological preference for a smaller state and a belief in redemption have created a paradigm shift. The fact that the public have shown themselves more interested in effectively  reducing recidivism than in ensuring lengthy sentences are  served in full has meant that arguing for reform in this area no longer carries the electoral costs it once did. Californian voters have for example ensured that a third offence must be serious and violent to qualify for a mandatory minimum and that  stolen property must  be worth more than $950 for a theft to count as a felony. Small steps but probably unthinkable a decade ago.

Whether the public would go as far as David Kennedy who told the AEI meeting that overuse of incarceration actually leads to more crime- both by limiting life chances of offenders and weakening informal social controls in the community- is another matter. But there seems widespread support for his contention that improved legitimacy of  police and other criminal justice agencies and more effective communication to offenders of the punishments that they’ll face, could bring crime down further.

Indeed it is the bipartisan nature of the criminal justice reforms that is striking. Adam Gelb from the Pew Trusts told the AEI seminar that votes for reform packages in states around the country have received support from 6000 legislators and opposition from just 500.  This reflects no doubt the horse trading that has taken place before votes are taken.  Some agencies- prosecutors in particular – seem to have been nervous in some states. It’s not clear whether this is due to outdated knowledge about the most effective use of prison or political self- interest- they face the electorate in most states.

Other officials and unions might become more agitated if more aggressive reforms lead to prisons closing or more serious or violent offenders facing shorter sentences. Yet these are the measures which will be needed if serious inroads are to be made into US prison populations and substantial funds freed up for social programmes. In truth the reforms introduced so far have only touched the edge of what is compared to Western Europe still a draconian system.

Gove will find out that the momentum of those reforms has been slowed by reports of spikes in violent crimes in particular cities and by particularly horrific cases such as a San Francisco murder committed by an illegal immigrant.  If America’s twenty year crime decline goes into reverse, arguments for reform will be harder to make.   Whether these turn out to be bumps in the road or the end of the road remain to be seen.

Friday, 14 August 2015

For God's Sake George, Take a Look at Criminal Justice Policy

Earlier this week the Ministry of Justice greeted the latest criminal justice statistics by celebrating record levels of prison sentences given to sex offenders in 2014. Their press release not only welcomed the harsher punishments given to the 6000 of these offenders sentenced last year. The Government seemed keen to publicise the fact that prison sentences for all offenders have been getting longer and that the proportion of serious offences given a community sentence has declined. They see as positive too the fall in the use of so-called out of court disposals- police cautions and warnings usually given for petty offences.

The consequences of the last of these trends is being shown daily in the Howard League’s excellent campaign to end the criminal courts charge. Not only are the Howard League highlighting the injustice and absurdity of imposing additional financial penalties on defendants whose criminality is born of poverty and desperation but raising the question on why on earth some of these petty offences are being brought to court at all. Just as most of the public came to see it as crazy to ban prisoners from receiving books through the post, so surely will a majority eventually accept that thefts of small amounts of food, begging,or drunkenness cry out for a problem solving response rather than a punitive one.

The use of courts for these kind of misdemeanours seems part of a broader pattern of criminalisation. The criminal statistics reveal an increase in the numbers of summary offences – the least serious- being prosecuted and sentenced. This is apparently due mainly to an increase in speed limit, vehicle insurance and TV licence offences. Other non-motoring summary offences that continued to rise during the year and the last decade include littering and truancy.

Separately this week we learned more details of the 16,000 parents prosecuted for failing to secure their children’s attendance at school, 18 of whom (ten mothers) ended up in prison. This week also saw an expensive Old Bailey trial resulting in a couple fined £1000 for outraging public decency; the judge blamed the defendants for maintaining their innocence but could easily have criticised the CPS for continuing a prosecution which while of significant interest to the public was hardly in the public interest.

In a time of stretched resources, it is odd to say the least that more and more cases are being brought before the courts unnecessarily.  A rational approach would surely see everything being done to deal with cases at the lowest and cheapest level in the system. This is what is happening in the health system where GP’s are being incentivised to reduce pressure on hospital admissions. Its what happens in the criminal justice systems of many European countries where prosecutors can settle many more cases than happens here. 

The one area in criminal justice where a sensible use of diversion  has been happening is in respect of young offenders. Figures out today show continuing reductions in the numbers of under 18’s in custody. In large part that’s because cases are diverted wherever possible by the police, and where cases go to court a wide range of alternatives are proposed to the courts and a large proportion imposed. This is precisely what’s needed for defendants of all ages.

Last week civil servants were asked to meet a public sector efficiency challenge by proposing ideas for
improving public services or save money. Categories of reform include reducing bureaucracy, improving customer services, staffing and making services work more effectively together. Keeping cases out of the court system as far as possible would meet all of these objectives and more.

The Chancellor's initiative asks respondents not to “use any profanity or abuse in your responses as it will automatically disqualify your idea”.  But for God’s sake, George  have a look at criminal justice and penal policy. 

Friday, 17 July 2015

Fine Words Better No Prisons

Prison reformers are almost by definition optimists but the expectation placed in Michael Gove by those of us who want to see a better prison system seems to be in danger of becoming distinctly Pollyannaish.

Yes he (or more likely George Osborne) has knocked the absurd Secure College on the head.  And his talk about prisoners as assets rather than liabilities, and the importance of redemption mark a welcome shift in philosophy from his predecessor’s obsessions with making prisons cheaper and less comfortable. Gove’s gone out of his way to praise the Prison Service and today he floated a number of ideas for improving its effectiveness.

Some of these were interesting, though reheated. Enabling prisoners to earn release through involvement in education, giving prison governors more autonomy, and selling Victorian prisons to fund a modern estate were all proposed in the 2008 so-called Conservative Green Paper Prisons with a Purpose. Gove made clear these are ideas to which he is attracted rather than firm policies. Some may be sensible, others less so- all are technically difficult to implement. I’m not sure I’d like to stay in prison longer because a Governor has not provided the opportunities for me to undertake the courses need to qualify for early release. The POA and others are surely right to be a little sceptical. We all heard Ken Clarke five years ago promising that prisons would be places “of education,hard work and change”.  To coin a phrase, "Fine words better no prisons".

It’s what Gove didn’t say that is the problem. It’s easy to point at the disgusting conditions at Pentonville as emblematic of the challenges facing jails but that’s only a part of it. As the Justice Committee , HMIP and Lord Harris have pointed out a significant number of prisons have been operating at staffing levels below what is necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes. With more cuts looming what is Gove planning to do?  How can he in good faith promise “an end to the idleness and futility of so many prisoners’ days” when he knows he will have significantly fewer resources at his disposal.

The obvious measure is to cut prison numbers or as Nick Hardwick put it “match the demand for custodial services to the resources available”.  As Gove will know by now, this can’t be achieved through tougher alternatives alone. Cutting sentence lengths is the most direct way of doing so but perhaps unsurprisingly there was nothing from Gove on this.  Reviving interest in Justice Reinvestment in which local agencies benefit from savings that accrue from reductions in prison admissions might be more palatable. But there was no reference to that either. Developing a more appropriate approach to young adults could also produce dividends in terms of reduced prison numbers just as it has with the under 18’s. But there was no mention of that and rumours are that the YJB may shortly be for the chop.

So despite his flowing rhetoric Gove's problem is more prosaic -not so much finding treasure in the heart of every man, but getting enough cash from the treasury to run a safe and decent system. Or shrinking the system so that it is.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Commercial Misjudgement?

In May, I raised concerns about an income generating scheme established by the Magistrates Association (MA) which involves private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC’s) investing in the MA Education and Research Network. I argued that the MA -which represents the 23,000 lay justices who deal with 90% of criminal cases in England and Wales- should not put itself in a position where the content of any guidance, information or advice it produces could be seen to be influenced by commercial considerations.

Yesterday the Network was officially launched at the Supreme Court. A brochure describing the plans for the Network does little to allay those concerns.

It is not a problem with research itself. The MA’s Royal Charter specifically permits the organisation to “promote or undertake study or research and disseminate the results of such research”. It is the invitation to become an affiliate of the Network which raises a potential conflict of interest for the MA.

Affiliates are offered- presumably in return for funding - a variety of benefits. These include:

* A conduit for valuable research information which may assist in the “development of affiliate businesses or organisations”
Networking with other affiliates leading to information exchange, “helping to identify commercial trends”
 The ability to commission additional research projects “and own the results” and
*   Opportunities to host seminars or functions in Association with the Network “to promote your organisation”.

I understand that at least two CRC’s have become affiliates. It is easy to see why they and other private sector organisations might have an interest in doing so. Only five years ago, the House of Commons Justice Select Committee reported that “the Magistrates’ Association raised concerns about the impact that introducing a profit motive for reducing re-offending may have on meeting the core aims of the criminal justice system”. The MA’s then Chair had given evidence that sentencers must have confidence that the sentence will be properly and effectively delivered and they “did not believe it should be driven by profit”.  What better way of winning round a sceptical stakeholder than helping to fill a hole in their finances?  

Moreover in order to help ensure a prosperous shape for future criminal justice developments, under what better auspices could private companies showcase their technological innovations – the focus of the Network’s first year’s work?

The MA will no doubt claim that the research undertaken through the Network will be independent and rigorous and will test the claims for these and other products, programmes and measures. Indeed, the Network has an impeccable academic consultant.  She will presumably ensure that the Network’s research will in all cases be peer reviewed and published, (even when the results are “owned” by the commissioning affiliate). Otherwise we may be in in for the kind of controversy seen in the pharmaceutical industry about access to data and research producing negative as well as positive outcomes.

The MA will claim too that the Network is an independent company and it is- a wholly owned subsidiary of the MA set up, in part at least, to raise funds for the association.  The Network is chaired by a former MA Chair and the Company Secretary is the current MA Chief Executive.

The objects for which the Magistrates Association is established and incorporated are to promote the sound administration of the law, “including, but not restricted to educating and instructing Magistrates and others in the law, the administration of justice, the treatment of offenders and the prevention of crime”.  Its Charter makes clear that the income and property of the Association, however derived, shall be applied solely towards the promotion of those objects.

These provisions may provide the legal wriggle room for the arrangements that have been put in place for the Network. But one is left wondering if the MA has really considered that it looks to be lending its name to the expansion of business opportunities for private companies in criminal justice?  

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Unchanging Prisons, Losing Lives?

Changing Prisons, Saving Lives, the report of the independent review of self- inflicted deaths by young adults in custody gives a refreshingly honest if depressing account of the realities of prison. It rightly damns “grim environments, bleak and demoralising to the spirit”, questioning whether penal establishments need to be as harsh and comfortless as young people find them to be.

Rightly the report argues that life in prison should approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community but it confirms the yawning gap (illustrated in most Inspection reports)  between what is supposed to happen and what actually does. In one symbolic respect, even what Prison Instructions require - that prisoners are afforded a minimum of 30 minutes in the open air daily- fails to meet the best known  international norm of an hour’s fresh air a day -something which is managed in many much less well-resourced prison systems around the world.

So what are the prospects of Harris's 108 recommendations being accepted and then implemented? Originally the intention was apparently to publish a government response alongside the review report but its easy to see why that option was ditched. At least one of the MoJ ministers Dominic Raab wrote in 2011 about the unwelcome belief that prisoners should be treated in prison in a way that reflects the normal life of freedom that all citizens generally enjoy. He and his co-authors of were “not ashamed to say that prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places”. If Gove or Andrew Selous shares those views, they would have been given more than a pause for thought by the recommendation that following each self-inflicted death in custody, the Minister for Prisons should personally phone the family of the prisoner who has died to express their condolences on behalf of the State and to promise that a full and thorough investigation will take place, and that any lessons from the death will be studied and acted upon to avoid similar deaths in the future.

Even if Gove took a more sympathetic stance, many of the recommendations have pound signs all over them and with the MoJ looking to find another £250 million savings this year, the calls for more and better trained staff will be seen as unaffordable.  The report is right to say of course that a reduction in the prison population will enable prisons to provide better conditions and regimes. But Gove is probably aware of what happened to Kenneth Clarke when he sought to bring the prison population down. He went down with it.  The MoJ will consider the recommendations “carefully and respond to the report in the autumn”.

What’s the likely outcome then? In a chapter in a forthcoming book on the management of change in criminal justice, I look at the impact of three previous inquiries- Woolf’s Strangeways report, Lord Keith’s inquiry into the murder of Zahid Mubarak  and the Corston review of women’s imprisonment. The conclusion was that they all resulted in important improvement but in each case the most important recommendations were not accepted. In the case of Woolf , the government refused to place strict  limitations on prison overcrowding; in Keith , the prison service never properly reviewed whether the advantages of holding young offenders on the same wing as adult offenders outweigh the disadvantages; and  Corston’s radical vision for small prison units for 20-30 women  was never taken up . Nor was her call for prison to be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public. I argued that without these central recommendations, the chance of radical change was scuppered.

If the Harris review goes the same way, we may well see action on many of the welcome technical recommendations for preventing and reducing self- harm and suicide and even some changes to inspection and monitoring. But the two central arguments may not find favour; first that more vulnerable young adults should be kept out of prison and second that we need a new statement of purpose emphasising the centrality of rehabilitation. Without these, it will be a case of unchanging prisons and losing lives.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Refreshing But Not Satisfying

It’s refreshing to hear a mainstream politician call for a reduction in prison numbers. Lib Dem leadership candidate Norman Lamb makes a powerful case in The Huffington Post that the Ministry of Justice should set a target of halving the prison population by 2025.  He wants the billion pound plus savings used to fund mental health and drug treatment and other community based measures which can better turn people’s lives round than do spells of imprisonment. The call echoes that made in the  2010 report on Justice Reinvestment by the House of Commons Justice Select Committee chaired by Lamb’s former colleague Sir Alan Beith.

One question the Lib Dems need to answer is why they had relatively little positive influence on penal policy during the Coalition years. It’s true that the prison population stayed relatively stable -there were a few hundred more prisoners when the Lib Dems left office in May than when they took it in 2010. On the credit side, Lamb himself raised the priority given to diverting defendants with mental health problems out of the courts and Simon Hughes developed some constructive resettlement initiatives in women’s prisons. But the prison system as a whole is in a much more parlous state through reckless cost-cutting. Inexplicably, the Lib Dems were enthusiasts for the Secure College for juveniles and failed to act to prevent either the breakup of the probation service, or the introduction of the iniquitous court charge which is causing increasing concern among magistrates up and down the country.   

Things would have been worse without us will be the familiar Lib Dem refrain; but one inconvenient truth about today’s intervention is that radical penal reform is unlikely to be a red line  in future coalition negotiations, should the Lib Dem Lamb lay down with the Tory or Labour lion.

A further truth is that, hugely worthwhile reforms as they are, strengthening community based alternatives  and introducing presumptions against  short prison terms will have only a marginal impact on the prison population on any one day. At the end of March 2015, prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or under comprised fewer than 7,000 out of the 85,000 people behind bars. Take all of them out and you can reduce your prison capacity and costs by 8% at most.

 Short sentenced prisoners of course represent a much higher proportion of all those who go in and out of prison during the course of a year- of the 78,000 received into prison to serve a sentence in 2014, 43,000 were doing a year or less. It’s this group that Lamb may have in his sights and could plausibly aim to halve in number. But achieving the objective would not free up the resources on the scale he’d like and we all need.

To do that he’d need to pledge to cut sentence lengths. There’s a strong case for doing so - they are higher than in other Western European countries – and of limited penological value. But politically it’s become a no go area to call for milder sanctions.

Lamb argues that the Lib Dems  “will never by afraid of radical evidence-based policies to improve people's lives and keep the public safe - and a rallying cry to reduce the prison population will be a key part of that”.  If he’s true to his word he should take a look not just at how many people go to prison but how long they stay there.  

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Stupid Cases

Back in 2001, I ran a campaign called Rethinking Crime and Punishment which aimed to raise the level of public debate about prison and alternatives. I'm not sure what impact it made, as by the time the main work finished in 2005, the prison population in England and Wales had increased by 17% (from 65,000 to 76,000). But of course without it , prison numbers could have been higher still.......

During the project, I started to compile a dossier of press reports of what seemed to me the worst examples of prison being used inappropriately. I was reminded of it by last week’s jailing of Gemma Wale for indulging in noisy sex and today’s failed appeal by naked rambler Stephen Gough. I found the file easily enough, saved as “Stupid Cases”.

Both Ms Wale and Mr Gough have breached court orders and failing to comply with rulings was a common feature of the stupid cases from the early 2000's. There were Norfolk grandparents given 28 days imprisonment after pleading guilty to cutting down a hedge in breach of a civil court injunction. (54 year old Marilyn Girling was held at Highpoint prison alongside Moors murderer Myra Hindley). Another woman Samantha Richards served 3 months for refusing to take down a fence placing herself in contempt of court.

There were several mothers sent to jail for failing to ensure their children attended school. One,a pregnant mother of an 11 year old truant, sentenced to 28 days, had her appeal turned down on Christmas Eve 2002. (Her husband was fined but not threatened with prison).  .

There were plenty of cases where people had acted foolishly and faced paying a price heavier than that imposed by the courts. Would a community punishment not have been possible for the (soon to be ex-) head teacher who received 3 months after pleading guilty to forging SATS papers at two primary schools; or a staff member who admitted
stealing exam papers from the school where she worked and showing them in advance to candidates? Or even the football fan who faced a six year stadium ban and received 4 months inside for running on the pitch and taunting the Aston Villa goalkeeper?

The dossier included hoaxers – the German trucker who admitted wasting police time after joking to a channel tunnel official that he was carrying TNT (28 days); entrepreneurs - John Collison who collected lost golf balls and sold them on (6 months) and geeks – an obsessive who made £50,000 worth of telephone calls for free to play computer games (2 months).

Some of the cases had a comical edge- the cannabis grower jailed after declaring illicit earnings to the tax man. Others were tragic; the mother jailed for drunken driving   after an accident which saw her daughter killed.” 

Several of the cases were successfully appealed but all served some time in prison. For Collison the experience was terrifying.  He told a paper that he had to strip off and stand naked while an officer took his personal belongings -just the sort of behaviour that has landed Mr Gough in so much trouble.

Finding an appropriate response to these kind of cases is not always easy, particularly where the court considers the offender has wilfully refused to fall into line or where a wider example is seen to be needed. I discontinued my dossier, but I am sure there are still plenty of these stupid cases. As with  Wale and Gough , courts surely need to take a step back to gain some perspective and sense of proportion about what they are doing. 

In the Christmas Eve truancy case in 2002, the Judge said that   “the magistrates had to pass a prison sentence because this matter had become so serious. They also felt a message needed to be sent to parents and children as to the importance of children attending school”. One can argue about the seriousness of all of these matters but risks arise once courts start to send out messages. Their decisions can  look as strange as those made by the people in the dock.