I don’t know about you, but I do appreciate a good headline.
Here’s a good one: Spending cuts mean crooks get shorter jail sentences, announced the Mirror in July, which went on to explain that, due to cuts, the Ministry of Justice would have to save £2 billion a year – and 34,000 police officers would have to lose their jobs – because budgets were to be cut by 20 per cent. My favourite bit, though, was this:
Today’s Justice Committee report calls on ministers to show “courage” by supporting tough community sentences to take pressure off the prison service.
I’d quite enjoy seeing some tough community sentences in action. You smash a window, punk, and you clean up the glass. Daub graffiti on a wall and you will scrub it off, preferably with a soft children’s toothbrush. You break into someone’s shop and jeopardise their livelihood and you will work for them, free of charge, until you have gone some way towards repaying your debt and feel remorseful. You might even get something positive out of the experience. Hey, we’ve all seen it happen in the movies.
Yet just how many offenders have been sent to prison lately in preference to community sentencing? Hundreds of rioters have taken the prison population beyond the 86,000 mark for the first time, reported the Guardian on Friday; seven hundred and twenty-three, to be precise, that week alone. Among them, the student who had just completed the first of a two-year college course in electrical engineering, aged 23, with no criminal record, who was jailed for six months for stealing a case of bottled water during the rioting (Lidl water thief jailed for six months, Telegraph). Not forgetting the 48-year-old man jailed for 16 months after stealing some doughnuts left over from the looting (Doughnut thief jailed for 16 months, BBC). This chump had been released from prison that same evening with only enough money in his pocket to buy tobacco, so took the doughnuts because he was hungry. It is true that he had more than 100 convictions for 233 offences and, because he had strayed into part of the city centre from which he was prohibited, he was in breach of an Anti Social Behaviour Order (ASBO), but sixteen months for pinching a couple of doughnuts?
It’s not just sticky-fingered (in this case, quite literally) opportunists and wayward protesters getting a hard time of it lately. Oh no. Just mostly. One of the most eyebrow-raising headlines I’ve seen ever – Charity hits out at jail sentence for Northampton man who gave partner herpes, Northampton Chronicle and Echo – neatly summarised the story of a 28-year-old man who was jailed for 14 months having pleaded guilty to inflicting grievous bodily harm last week. I checked and it’s not a joke. Even the Daily Mail got involved. (That was the joke.)
Hmm. As there’s obviously so much space in our prisons (there isn’t) and the country can comfortably afford to lock people away (it can’t, well, could if the rich paid more tax and money wasn’t wasted bombing countries to secure cheap oil) and if our elected representatives truly wished to be seen in the eyes of the world to be consistently morally upstanding (please, have you seen the stories coming out of the UK lately?), then why not also lock up the following undesirables?
– A 64-year-old paedophile, whose victims over a 22-year period were all under the age of 14, escaped jail and was instead handed a 36-month community order coupled with a supervision order and a spot on the sex offenders’ register (North Cheam paedophile evades jail term despite two decades of abuse, Sutton Guardian).
– A 25-year-old who had for three years downloaded over 14,000 images and videos “at every level of seriousness” depicting sickening scenes. You’d like to think that getting your kicks from watching “babies being subjected to serious sexual abuse, torture or bestiality” would warrant a custodial sentence. Think again. For this pathetic specimen, treatment in the community was decided more suitable than a spell in jail (Man avoids prison term for child abuse images, Northampton Chronicle and Echo). How does a three-year community order, subject to a five-year sexual offences’ prevention order and a place on the sex offenders’ register until 2016 sound? Not as pleasing as ‘get that twisted pervert as far away from my children as possible and throw away the key,’ it has to be said.
Personally, I’d quite like paedophiles who have commonly committed unspeakable acts and individuals whom, it would seem, have the potential to commit them, be locked away for a very long time, if it’s all the same to you. Call me insensitive to the pain of business, but plate glass windows can be repaired much more easily than the damage caused to those poor children’s lives.
Doesn’t it make your blood boil? And why did this lot get off so lightly?
– A 45-year-old scientist, no less, brought a 21-year-old from her native Tanzania to the UK to brutalise and treat as an unpaid slave. She was cleared of trafficking and assault and sentenced to six months in jail (‘African Cruella de Vil’ Rebecca Balira jailed over house slave, Metro).
– Four years for pleading guilty to eight counts of sexually assaulting a child under the age of 13 doesn’t sound right, either (Jail term given to sick Runcorn paedophile branded ‘a joke’ by mother of one of his victims (Runcorn and Widnes Weekly).
– Young mum tells of terrifying attack (Sunday Sun) at the hands of her partner of two-and-a-half years. He served just eight weeks behind bars – eight weeks, it’s not a typo – despite admitting assault, causing actual bodily harm and being jailed for six months. He also received the token restraining order, which must come as a great source of comfort when you’ve been left badly beaten by someone you love. I wonder if the swelling and bruises lasted longer than the violent thug’s stint in prison.
– 15-month jail sentence for ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ attacker (Bristol Evening Post) sounds fairer than the previous case, but not when you think back to those stolen doughnuts commanding a 16-month sentence. This time the brute pleaded guilty to assault occasioning actual bodily harm and two charges of battery, one of which involved a 14-year-old being thrown onto broken glass and smashing the head of a 13-year-old into a radiator despite being “100 per cent not guilty” when police interviewed him (and having 17 convictions for 33 offences, being in breach of both a community sentence for having an offensive weapon and a suspended prison term for violence against his own sister).
We can’t forget the MPs, those paragons of virtue who get to claim for things most of us have to pay for out of our own pockets, such as pot plants and DVD players. David Chaytor was jailed for 18 months after pleading guilty to fraudulently claiming more than £20,000 in expenses. He admitted three charges of false accounting. False accounting! That doesn’t sound too far from what those charged with burglary might have insisted they were guilty of: false shopping.
Jim Devine, was jailed for 16 months after submitting false invoices totalling more than £8,000. Elliot Morley was also sentenced to 16 months’ imprisonment for claiming more than £30,000 in false mortgage payments. It would have been a longer sentence but for the “courage” it had taken for him to enter a guilty plea. Really, it’s these selfless acts of heroism which make me glad that we pay them almost three times the average salary for hardly bothering to turn up at the House of Commons. (Can’t we cut their number down from 650 for starters? Talk about over-representation.) Eric Illsley pleaded guilty to claiming £14,500 more than he was entitled to and received 12 months’ imprisonment, for which he served three.
That’s because those given sentences of less than four years who pose a low risk, if not convicted of violent or sexual offences, can be considered eligible for early release after serving at least a quarter of their sentence under the Home Detention Curfew Scheme, subject to electronic tagging and a curfew. I look forward to discovering how many of the most recent prison intake such charitableness will be extended to.
Maybe it was pure coincidence, but I also noted yesterday that Over one in two convicted cops keep their jobs (Mirror) – and the crimes they’ve been convicted of include sexual assault, soliciting for prostitution and possession of a Class A drug.
Has our society got no sense of proportion? I wonder where we place the case of a student jailed for 18 months for falsely claiming a cleaner had raped her – just so that she could get an extension on her university coursework (Jail for student who cried rape for homework time, Metro), or the drunk driver who was nearly twice the legal limit yet, mercifully, injured nobody (Drink drive MoD man sentenced, Scarborough Evening News). Banned from driving for 17 months, fined £500 and less a danger to passers-by than the jailed student protesters how exactly?
The Telegraph presented statistics to show that some convicted rioters are being handed prison sentences which are 40 per cent longer than they would have been had they committed the same offences a year ago. I read an interesting New Statesman article which claimed that 81 per cent of the public believe the sentences meted out to the assorted looters and hooligans are either fair or not harsh enough. Presumably this includes those for Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan who were each jailed for four years under the Serious Crime Act, which states that encouraging an offence carries the same penalties as the actual offence itself, for inciting disorder on Facebook. Their efforts to encourage a riot came to naught, but that’s not considered quite the same as getting behind the wheel of a considerable chunk of metal which goes fast and can crush people with ease when in no fit state to drive, and not harming anyone, but is rather like dropping a fire extinguisher from a rooftop which hurts nobody (for which student protester Edward Woolard, you may recall, received two years and eight months in jail). Strange, that.
Ignoring my cynical suggestion that these politically-motivated sentences serve as vengeful retribution for the humiliation of the police, with the added bonus that they appease the vindictive and most likely Tory voters who have been clamouring for more prisons, police and privileges for many years, whilst also conveniently diverting attention from a fractured government’s swingeing public service spending cuts, are these sentences not horribly disproportionate? Janet Daley says, no, actually, they’re not and argues that if lesser sentences are indeed handed out for more serious crimes, as we have seen above, rather than being an indictment on the harsh sentencing observed since the riots, we should condemn the soft sentences and make them tougher. Perhaps you agree with her. Yet when someone – in this case, community worker Mohamed Hammoudan, 46 – who has lost everything he owns in an arson attack during the riots, can say that prison should not be used “as a blanket way of resolving social problems,” doesn’t it make you think? Doesn’t it make you feel ashamed?
In my view, rioters and protesters alike who are convicted of first-time offences should be shown some leniency. They don’t need prison, they need anything but; they need an opportunity to try to put things right and to repay their debt to society if they are to believe that such a thing as society exists and that there is a place for them within it.
I say this not least because appeals take time and cost money. The Telegraph reported on cuts to legal aid which are expected to save at least £300 million a year back in November. More is spent on legal aid, by the way, in England and Wales than anywhere else in the world, with a budget of more than £2 billion which helps more than two million people each year. The BBC reported earlier this year that the legal aid bill for last summer’s rioting in Belfast exceeded £34,000. That would pay the annual salary of, what, two new police officers? Twenty-six men were charged with rioting and related offences, all were granted legal aid and all pleaded guilty. Well over a thousand suspects have appeared before court so far, many of them requiring legal aid, many to appeal.
However, there is hope for those who do appeal. For example, a 24-year old mother of two was jailed for five months after admitting handling stolen goods. She has now been freed on appeal a week since her arrest. She played no part in the rioting, but claimed a pair of shorts that her house-mate, also 24, had stolen as part of a bounty of clothes, footwear and accessories. Instead of prison, 75 hours of unpaid work was decreed a more sensible punishment. Her house-mate, who had a previous conviction for theft, was jailed for 18 months after pleading guilty to stealing items worth £625 which she claimed she planned to sell to ease her debts.
Similarly, in May, seven football hooligans jailed for travelling to an organised gang fight had their sentences, which ranged from 12 months to five years, reduced by a quarter on appeal. Their lawyers argued that their sentences – for conspiracy to commit violent disorder – were too long considering that no violence had taken place (Burnley FC ‘Suicide Squad’ members have jail terms cut, Clitheroe Advertiser).
So now the courts will be clogged with appeals and I hope belated leniency and common sense will eventually be shown. But what an embarrassing, wasteful, arse-backward system of dispensing justice we have in Britain. And so much for tough community sentences to take pressure off the prison service.