THROW AWAY THE KEY

Before we wave goodbye to Mick Jagger, now Sir Mick Jagger, bastion of the establishment, how the worm turns, I was struck by his reaction to a night in Brixton Prison: “It was not particularly nice. Not to be recommended.” An understatement if ever there was.

For as many years as I can remember since I was called to the Bar in 1974, we had a number of stock phrases when mitigating on behalf of our client, one of which was the clang of the prison gate and not the length of the sentence that was the ultimate  deterrent, and so it was for Mick Jagger as it is for so many who are carted off and locked away.

It is one of the phenomena of the past twenty five years that successive governments have used imprisonment as the first, not the last resort, and sentences have got longer and longer  In case Jeremy Corbyn is tempted to point the finger at the Tories, some of the most draconian laws on crime and punishment were passed in 2003 by a Labour government when Tony Blair was in power and still in short trousers.

Despite vacuous statements about reducing the prison population, it hasn’t happened and will never happen unless we have a complete rethink.  In Mick’s case, he was sentenced as a first offender to 3 months imprisonment for the possession of four amphetamine tablets.  Whilst the judge could have been working to a political agenda, it was excessive and immediately overturned on appeal.

The statistics are frightening.  The prison population is higher than ever, and 40% are re offenders. So much for the concept of rehabilitation.  Almost all prisons are dangerously overcrowded, and the crimes being committed behind bars are worse than the crimes that  brought the inmates there in the first place.  The frightening mentality of the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ brigade is depressingly familiar in Little Britain.

Another frightening statistic is that nearly 80% of prisoners are serving a sentence of 12 months or less.  They shouldn’t be inside in the first place, but judges have lost the power to be original and inventive, and must do everything by the book.  If that’s the case, time to throw away the book.

As I drive along motorways, or more to the point, crawl along motorways, I am astonished and depressed in equal measure by the amount of litter along the roadside. So why not use those convicted of petty crime to pick it up?  Far better than sitting in a cramped cell for hours on end doing nothing.

They say that a society should be judged by the way it treats its most disadvantaged citizens.  If that is so, we have a lot to learn.

PRISON REFORM IS BACK AGAIN

Just when we thought prison reform had died a death from a thousand cuts, back it comes in the Queen’s Speech, so that must mean something surely.

In previous blogs, too many to recount, I have made the point that our prison service is not fit for purpose.  In fact, it is downright dangerous for all of us, as we are all affected in one way or another.  It is dangerous for the end user, otherwise known as the prisoner, who will be intimidated and brutalised not just by the system but by fellow inmates who have time on their hands and nothing useful to do with it.  The prison warders, or officers as they prefer to be known, are one small step away from a full scale riot in many of the most notorious prisons, and the only way they can avoid it is by locking up the inmates for up to 23 hours a day. That’s like putting a lid on a boiling kettle, sooner or later it’s going to explode.

And then there’s the likes of you and me.  After all, in the fullness of time, these inmates are going to be released, for the most part unsupervised and without secure accommodation, they will be jostling us in the street, or at the bus stop, or in the pub, and we don’t know how safe or vulnerable we may be to a sudden and uncontrolled outburst of violence, as witness the four victims of a stabbing attack in a supermarket car park.

The cost is not inconsiderable.  On average, it costs £25,000 per prisoner per annum, and this rises dramatically to £50,000 for Category A prisoners.  There are 85,000 prisoners, so you do the maths.

The ‘law and order’ and ‘hang them high’ lobbies usually associated with the Tory Party have done us all a considerable disservice over the years in their obsession with locking up anybody and everybody who doesn’t march to their tune.  This has almost single-handedly led to chronic overcrowding at the expense of treating inmates like human beings and preventing any form of meaningful rehabilitation.

Those of us who are familiar with the criminal justice system know that up to two thirds of all prison inmates shouldn’t be there in the first place.  They are no threat to society, and their crimes do not merit what is the ultimate sanction, namely the deprivation of liberty.  In addition, sentences have got longer and longer, for no justifiable reason other than to curry favour with the Tory Party’s core support.  One egregious example will suffice, and which I highlighted in a recent blog, namely the Frinton Flogger, the chap who was slapping salami in front of his patio window in full view of passers by.  He was sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment, which I considered excessive and absurd, and I hope by now he has been released.  If not, it’s a travesty of justice.

Back to the Queen’s Speech.  The government proposes a sort of halfway house, where prisoners are released to work during the week, and returned into custody over the weekend.  It is certainly a step in the right direction, but a logistical nightmare, and the problem about prison inmates is that so many are poorly educated with low self esteem, so the idea of having jobs to go to, with the added disadvantage of a criminal record, seems a bridge too far. But let’s not be fainthearted. The other weekend I drove from Taunton to London via the M5 and M4, a distance of 166 miles.  The verges and banks were knee deep in litter, so I thought, why not offer these 80,000 plus prisoners the chance to do some good for the community and earn remission points at the same time?  They would be bused to designated points, spend the day picking up litter, and then bused back to prison.

Historically, remission is applied to prisoners who keep out of trouble whilst in prison, which is fair enough, but why not go farther?  Apply a generous remission scheme to those who volunteer for day jobs, whether it be litter collecting, or dredging streams, or painting bus shelters, a whole host of community based jobs, and if the inmate not only behaves himself but does the job to an acceptable standard, reduce his sentence dramatically.  If he doesn’t perform to an acceptable standard, he is returned to prison without remission and has only himself to blame.

I like the idea of electronic tags so inmates can be tracked at any time of the day or night.  Sitting in a prison cell for 23 hours a day, feeling resentful, bored and looking for trouble, achieves absolutely nothing except resentment, boredom and trouble.  It may satisfy the ‘hang ’em high’ brigade, but the time is well overdue when we start treating prisoners as human beings and try and help them.  It’s worth a try, and now!

David Osborne is the author of three humorous books on the Law.  His latest, entitled Order in Court, is now available in all reputable bookstores and on Amazon.

order-in-court1

MANIFESTLY UNFAIR

It is not often I agree with the European Court of Human Rights.  For the most part, it’s a waste of space.  An unedifying gaggle of poorly qualified foreigners jabbering away in their own lingo whilst trying to apply a universal standard of human rights which, in many cases, is wholly alien to their own. That said however, the court’s ruling against indeterminate imprisonment for public protection [IPP] is spot on.

On any view, such a sentence is manifestly unfair, not so much in the sentence itself, but the way in which it has been implemented.  The sentencing judge is obliged to set a minimum tariff which the offender must serve before he becomes eligible for release.  Thereafter, his actual release date is determined by the Parole Board.

The thinking behind it was to tackle persistent offenders, and to ensure, if humanly possible, that they would not re-offend upon release.  To achieve this laudable goal, these offenders were supposed to engage in useful and life style changing programmes run by the prison and social services, to help them see the error of their ways and to put them firmly on the path to rehabilitation.

But as the ECHR observed, there are currently in excess of 6000 prisoners serving IPP sentences, of whom at least 3,500 are beyond their minimum term.  The court went on the observe that the considerable delays in these prisoners making any progress towards rehabilitation and release had been the result of lack of resources, planning and any realistic consideration of the impact of the sentencing scheme introduced in 2005.

It is clearly a Catch 22 situation, where these prisoners can only be released after completing courses that our overcrowded prisons cannot provide.

Chris Grayling, the new Justice Secretary of State, whose only acquaintance with the law before taking office was two parking tickets, has been advised to consider an appeal, but he would be ill advised to do so.  He would do so in the knowledge that Ken Clarke, the outgoing Justice Secretary, committed the government last year to scrapping the sentence, so any argument on appeal that IPPs do not breach an offender’s human rights is likely to fall on deaf ears.

It may be some comfort for Grayling to know that he can’t do much worse than his predecessor, and perhaps his complete ignorance of the law may work in his favour.  One of Ken Clarke’s remits on taking up his appointment was to reduce the prison population.  It has actually increased, and we now imprison more per capita than any other country within the European Union.

Not a claim to fame we should feel proud of.