Tuesday, 28 August 2007

The words 'mouth', 'money' and 'put' come to mind....

In a nutshell, are we collectively prepared to put our tax money where our law and order mouth is? I suspect not.
This year's spate of killings of young males in our inner cities by their contemporaries, coupled with the violent deaths of several adults who have had the temerity to challenge groups of teenagers, has prompted much breast-beating and heart-searching as to what kind of society we have become.
Among those with a penchant for simple solutions, the call has gone out for stiffer sentences. This, however, ignores the unpalatable fact that if we have to pass ANY kind of sentence, then the system has already failed. Failed to prevent the offence. Failed to prevent the slide into antisocial attitudes and low-level offending that inexorably graduates to more serious criminality. Failed, too, in the ten year old words of New Labour to be tough on the causes of crime, let alone tough on crime itself.
Being tough on crime does not lie in ever more severe sentencing, but in investing sufficient financial resources into achieving the necessary levels of manning within police forces up and down the country, and backing that up with sufficient finances to resource those officers properly in terms of support services, equipment and the like. Low cost, superficially-trained pretend police officers are not an answer; they merely contribute to the problem. We need to do this in order to raise the likelihood that an offender will be detected and apprehended to a level where that prospect becomes a real disincentive to take the risk. The majority of persistent offenders at whatever level of seriousness at present operate in an enviroment where they can be fairly confident that they will not be apprehended.
Having resourced the police properly, we must then do the same for the Crown Prosecution Service, so that it can attract, reward and retain advocates of the highest quality. We must do likewise for the Probation Service and the Prison Service.
That will give us a chance of dealing more effectively with the current generation of offenders.
Being tough on the causes of crime is the only hopeful route to bringing about a reduction in the offending levels of the next and subsequent generations. Again, it is primarily a matter of being prepared to put in the financing that will actually permit the professionals in the respective fields to:
- work on improving the parenting skills of those whose own parents have failed to demonstrate to them what this involves.
- reduce the levels of illiteracy and innumeracy which result in too many children leaving school unfitted for employment in the workplaces of the 21st century.
- put in place the drug and alcohol treatment programmes which already exist and have been shown to work, but which are not accessible to most addicts.
- tackle the evil of domestic violence which pervades the homes of so many of those who drift into offending already accepting violence as the strategy of choice for any dispute, and of almost all of those taken into care by the local authorities.
- improve basic housing stock, so that children do not have to grow up in accommodation which is cramped, cold, damp and in disrepair.
Being tough on the causes of crime also involves looking critically at the level of financial support which the state needs to provide for those not in work, whilst at the same time working more assiduously to help these people into work paid at a level which enables them to provide for their families.
Perhaps then we might have a suitably fertile soil in which to grow once again the social cohesion which has withered away among young people in so many inner city ghettos.

Everything I have identified makes good sense, but it costs good money and there's the catch. There is only one source of government finances and that is the taxes paid by you and me. Are we yet sufficiently concerned about these things to truly put our money where our mouth is? I am reminded of a comment made by Alan Beswick, the BBC Radio Manchester presenter, to a caller to his morning phone-in programme some years ago:
"At every election since 1945, we the public have been offered a choice. Good government or cheap government. We have always voted for cheap." Well, now we are reaping the consequences.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

"You have the right to elect to be tried at the Crown Court...

On the 22nd July this year it would appear that a British Transport Police inspector logged onto a website by the name of uniformdating.com, where he made an assignation with a lady to whom uniforms are a turn-on. At 3pm the following day, they met on the platform at Gatwick Airport station, where said inspector took a twenty minute break from his duties (He was the senior officer on duty apparently.) and taking her into an office on the platform comprehensively pleasured her.

The conscientious officer thoughtfully left on both his lapel radio and his mobile phone, though I imagine he may have taken a moment or two to gather his thoughts had a train crash or a suicide bomber had happened along while he was busy.

Last week his trial duly took place for criminal misconduct, the jury swiftly acquitted him and the judge then criticised the CPS for ever bringing the case in the first place. Now setting aside a) that this is about the shortest interval between offence (captured on CCTV, so I suppose someone will be watching for it to appear on YouTube) and Crown Court trial that I can ever remember, and b) that I know only the account given in the press, an finally c) that I do not know what constitute the elements of the offence of criminal misconduct*, I can't help wondering how he would have fared in front of a bench of magistrates.

* The CPS do know the elements and doubtless took the view that they could be made out. The judge let the jury proceed to consider a verdict; presumably had he had doubts about the elements he would have directed an acquittal.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

The Wrong Answer

I see the Chief Constable of Cheshire Police is calling for the legal age for buying alcohol to be raised to 21. Apparently he believes that this will reduce the problem of teenage drunkenness. Which suggests that it must be a long time since he last walked a beat.
The problem is not the minimum age at which people are allowed to BUY alcohol. It's the minimum age at which too many retailers are prepared to SELL alcohol, which is already way below the present legal age of 18. Whenever local trading standards departments decide to take out underage volunteers to make test purchases, a crop of prosecutions follows. The trouble is they don't do it very frequently, so most of the time these sales can be made with impunity.
If we are serious about restricting the availability of alcohol for young people, we need much heavier sanctions against those who sell it. That used to be achieved by the threat of losing your licence and hence your livelihood, which doesn't seem to be the case these days where off-sales are concerned.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Where we're coming from

I regularly drop in on "The Magistrate's Blog" (see link below; the lawwestofealingbroadway), because I find what Bystander has to say is usually thought-provoking. Comment-provoking, too. Some of the comments he attracts either seem to expect the judiciary to have a society-focused agenda or complain that we are an arm of the nanny state, interfering unjustifiably in peoples' private lives.

It might help to see what we commit to on appointment. Every magistrate has to swear the Judicial Oath - so does very judge, but with appropriately amended wording. The oath is as follows:

I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second in the office of Justice of the Peace and I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of the Realm without fear or favour, affection or ill-will.

In other words:

We serve the Crown, not the government of the day.
We apply the law as it is enacted, not as we wish it were.
We will do so impartially, striving always to recognise and set aside our prejudices and preconceptions.

This is an absolute obligation. If we encounter a piece of legislation which we strongly oppose, we have only one remedy; resign from the bench. Many people did resign at the introduction of the poll tax; a small number have left as a result of the recently introduced victim surcharge.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

All too familiar

I'm reading a report about Emma (not her real name) and it makes depressing reading. It details a chaotic lifestyle, characterised by misuse of alcohol, heroin and cocaine. It isn't a probation report as you might imagine, and Emma isn't an offender. She's 11 months old and she's a victim. Her mother 'Dawn' is the addict and the report has been prepared by the local Social Services Dept. Next week, we will have to decide whether to grant the local authority a care order in respect of Emma, so that they can assume parental responsibility, something which neither mother nor her violent, drug-dependent partner want, but which their own lack of care of Emma does nothing to ward off. The report talks of Dawn's failure to prioritise Emma's needs over her own, or to engage effectively with social services to address her drug and alcohol problems and her parenting skills. In just the same way that she failed to engage with the maternity services during her pregnancy, whilst assuring them that she was not using. Even so, very shortly after her birth Emma began to show clear symptoms of withdrawal and had to be cared for on the special baby unit whilst being detoxed.

Dawn's two older children by a former partner have also been through the Family Court and are now in the longterm foster care of their maternal grandmother. The question remains unanswered at this stage as to whether grandma will be prepared and able to take Emma into her care as well. And then there will be the question of the next child; Dawn is already pregnant again.

When people think of drugs and the courts, they think in terms of the criminal courts, and indeed a high proportion of the cases we see involve abuse of drugs and the criminality needed to fund the habit. But, to protect the identity of the children concerned, the public are not admitted to the Family Court, and so this whole other area of drug impact goes largely unnoticed and unreported. The cost to the community in terms of the resources that have to be provided to rescue and protect children like Emma may not be on the same scale as the cost of drug-related crime, but it still involves enormous sums of money which is not then available for care of the elderly, the mentally ill and those with disability needs.