Friday, 16 March 2018

The Little Things that Give You Away

I’ve forgotten the term for when people say or do seemingly inconsequential  things which reveal some deeper and more inconvenient truth. I’ve been struck by three in criminal justice this week

Let’s start with the judge who gave an 83 year old man with prostate cancer a 14 month prison sentence for contempt of court arising from a bitter divorce. Of its kind it was a serious offence. When I suggested on twitter that there must be a better alternative than  prison, one lawyer commented that the case involved “numerous, persistent, contumacious breaches of court orders, compounding a determined failure to engage with original proceedings. It can be a real problem in the family court”. Another said “Frankly I'm more sympathetic to most burglars I have met”.  

Anyway it was a bit in the sentencing remarks that struck me. “Nobody” the judge said “wants to see a man of that age going to prison unless it is genuinely necessary.”  Very true. But isn’t there a troubling implication there that it might be okay for younger, fitter men to be locked up in the absence of a genuine necessity. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the case strengthens the argument – recently made by Oxford sentencing experts Julian Roberts and Lyndon Harris for a Penal Audit:  “a cross-party examination of the prison estate with a view to determining whether there is any consensus about the proportion of prisoners who could have been sentenced to a community-based sanction”.

The second giveaway, is the Justice Secretary’s evidence to the Justice Committee last week. In the course of questioning about the size the prison population- its not the metric on which he wants to be assessed-,  David Gauke told MPs “clearly, if prison numbers were stable or falling, it would give us scope to deal with some maintenance issues". Because prison numbers didn’t rise as normal in the first two months of the year “it enables us to undertake repairs and so on”. 

Again, that sounds okay until you realise that the minister is in effect admitting that the ability to provide acceptable living conditions requires a fall in prison numbers- or a buffer in the system as he put it. He is not talking about the space to apply a new lick of paint but dealing with squalid cells without emergency call bells, and hundreds of broken windows. As for meeting a key international norm observed by prison systems in many much poorer countries- keeping remand and sentenced prisoners separately- we are nowhere near in England and Wales.    

The third revelation this week came on youth justice. The MOJ told the Justice Committee that the two new pilot secure schools they are building will offer a therapeutic environment where education, healthcare & physical activity are key; this will distinguish secure schools from current youth custody provision & its predecessors. Really? My initial response is that it's insane to set up these new centres at the same time as the local authorities are having to close some of their facilities for disturbed young people in communities throughout the country.

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