In the Media

Justice? Don't make me laugh

PUBLISHED June 16, 2006

Criminals understand the system all too well. That's why they despitse it
A REMAND prisoner who was a patient of mine returned to prison one day from court after his trial. He was in a state bordering on fury.
?What?s the matter?? I asked him. 
?They gave me three months,? he said. ?Three months is no use to me. I was hoping for at least 12.?

This story illustrates a little-known fact about prisoners ? or British prisoners at least. About a third of them (I don?t have precise figures) prefer life inside to life outside.

The reasons for this are several. The most important is that prison provides them with boundaries to their own behaviour that they are incapable of providing for themselves. They therefore feel safer in prison than at large; they do less damage there to themselves and, more importantly, to others.

Criminals, unlike the current British criminal justice system and criminologists, know the value of punishment. Both inside prison and out, they impose their discipline by means of the threat of punishment on their colleagues, friends, family and the rest of society. It is this threat, for example, that prevents a prisoner who has been brutally attacked in jail and injured badly from revealing the identity of his attackers. If he does so, he will be considered a ?grass?, a crime that carries with it a life sentence, in as much as he will be under threat of further attack by other prisoners for the rest of his career inside. Indeed, the threat can be extended to his area of residence on his release from prison.

In other words, prisoners have no doubts about the deterrent effect of condign punishment. Similarly, they have little doubt about the effects of leniency. Certain phrases have burnt themselves into my mind, so often did I hear them in the mouths of victims of a crime who failed to complain to the police about it. The perpetrator would say to them, even as he assaulted or stole from them: ?Remember, I?ll be walking the same streets as you in six weeks.?

In other words, the perpetrator expected a lenient sentence that itself would be automatically halved. A sentence of six months means three; one of three months means six weeks. Early-release schemes have meant that sentences are shorter than they appear when first given: the desire to keep prison numbers under control is far more important in the mind of the Government and its bureaucracy than is protection of the public from criminals (it helps that the main victims of crime come from the poor, ignorant and unprotesting classes).

It is worth remembering, too, that short sentences and early release are not the only, or even the most important, manifestation of the leniency of the British criminal justice system. Because of the corrupting influence of performance indicators, which have rotted all branches of the British public service, it can be difficult to persuade the police even to record a crime, let alone do anything about it.

But if the police do take notice, and actually catch the perpetrator, they often deal with him administratively, by issuing a caution, rather than by charging him. This is because the work involved in charging someone is so time-consuming for the police and likely to prove ultimately unproductive: the Crown Prosecution Service will refuse to prosecute (I have known it drop charges against people who have quite clearly intended to kill, claiming that to prosecute them would be against the public interest), or if it prosecutes, the sentence at the end of the process will be so slight as to be risible, productive merely of a smirk on the face of the person thus sentenced.

Moreover, the convicted person may ask many other offences to be taken into consideration, without receiving an iota of extra punishment for having committed them, however numerous, and thereby gaining an assurance that he can never again be charged with them (the police benefit from this egregious, indeed iniquitous, system because it increases their notional clear-up rate).

It is hardly surprising, then, that the British criminal justice system is an object of contempt for criminals who are only too aware of the value of deterrence. Neither the police nor the courts are feared, except by those who are in any case law-abiding.

A few days ago, I witnessed a perfect illustration of the ineffectiveness of the criminal justice system, which is inflated and swollen in size, but very weak. Like all British public institutions, it retains its form, but not its content. I went to court to give evidence in a case. I was horrified to discover that the courts were patrolled by semi-militarised policemen with guns in their holsters and also bearing automatic weapons which they looked ready to use at the slightest provocation. It was a show of force that might lead the naive to suppose that the British State was become extremely severe in its suppression of wrongdoing.

Inside the court, however, I witnessed something that demonstrated how enfeebled the whole system has become. The accused (who was guilty) was brought into the dock. A man in the seat beside me, himself clearly a member of the criminal classes, began quite audibly to threaten him, saying that he would ?get him? when he came out of prison. He glared at him in a menacing way, and repeated his threats several times. The accused was so frightened that he looked away.

Everyone in the court was aware of what the man beside me was doing, and yet nothing was done either to stop him, let alone punish him for behaving in this way. Could anyone blame him if he concluded from the fact that he had got away with a crime even in the very heart of the criminal justice system, with armed policemen patrolling outside, that he had nothing to fear from that system? What sensible person would feel other than contempt for an institution that was unable to defend people from intimidation even within its hallowed portals?

In the circumstances, I was not surprised when I asked a prisoner who came into my prison consulting room what he was in for. His upper lip curled a bit and he blew out his cheeks with contempt. ?Just a poxy little murder charge,? he said.