A new book says that while petty crime is being rigorously prosecuted, serious offenders are not.
Like millions of others in modern Britain, David Langton is a law-abiding citizen who keeps getting into trouble. His crimes? To drive, to park, to be an ordinary person who makes occasional mistakes.
In the past year he has had his car towed away from outside his home when the parking bay was suspended; he has been caught by two ?safety? cameras when driving a few miles an hour over the speed limit; and he has twice been fined for forgetting about the London congestion charge.
?Most recently I?ve been fined ?100 for stopping on a red route at 3am for a few minutes while a friend bought a takeaway meal,? said Langton, a 28-year-old freelance writer from north London. ?I am utterly fed up of the sledgehammer approach of police and councils when it comes to dealing with minor motoring misdemeanours.
?I have never had an accident, and in every case I was not blocking traffic, causing a nuisance or endangering life; but none of that is taken into account. My biggest crime is absent-mindedness.?
Yet he has had to pay almost ?1,000 in fines and risks losing his licence if he falls foul of the dreaded speed cameras just twice more.
?I consider myself a fundamentally honest person,? he said. ?It makes my blood boil when I read about burglars being given community service when people like me are taken to the cleaners over parking offences. The legal system is skewed in favour of real criminals.?
It is not just motoring law that is driving ordinary people round the bend. About 1m people are also fined for filing their tax returns late; worse, more than 40,000 people were fined in the past two years even though they had filed their returns on time.
If you fail to recycle your rubbish properly, you can now be stung for up to ?2,500. In recent weeks police issued a teenager in Kent with an ?80 penalty notice for saying ?f***? (though the case was later dropped).
In another case a 10-year-old boy was prosecuted after calling a mixed-race pupil ?Bin Laden? in a playground argument. Judge Jonathon Finestein called the decision to take him to court ?political correctness gone mad?.
Was this what voters expected when Tony Blair said he would be ?tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime?? Hardly, says David Fraser, author of a new book called A Land Fit For Criminals. Fraser, who spent 26 years working in the probation and prison services, argues that the public have been consistently hoodwinked over the true nature of government policy on crime and punishment.
In a detailed analysis, he claims successive governments have talked tough on crime but acted soft.
THE reality, says Fraser, is that criminals convicted of many nasty offences often face nothing tougher than probation, fines or community service.
Take the case of Andrew Campbell, a paratrooper from Ayrshire. He battered Gemma Gregerson, 19, so badly when she refused to have sex with him that she spent four days in hospital. Last week he was fined ?1,200 and walked free from court.
Other recent cases are even more gruesome. John Monckton, a financier, was murdered by a criminal released early on probation; and four of a gang of six attackers involved in the sadistic murder of teenager Mary-Ann Leneghan were on probation.
?Apart from the gravest of crimes, there?s no prison for a first offence any more,? said Brian Lawrence, author of They Call It Justice and a former trainer of magistrates. ?There are such discrepancies, it?s completely out of balance. There?s one law for motorists and another for criminals.?
The creation of a lopsided Big Brother Britain is illustrated in the changing treatment of motorists. They are targeted mercilessly by an army of cameras and snoopers. In 1951 there were 536,000 cases of summary action (ranging from written warnings to court proceedings) for motoring offences. By 1991 it had risen to 8.3m cases, and by 2004 to 13.5m.
This is only partly because of the increasing number of cars. Since 1951 the number of licensed vehicles has risen seven times, but the number of legal actions by 25 times.
Technology is partly to blame. Since 1996 more than 6,000 speed cameras have been installed to monitor the roads. Unlike policemen, they do not exercise discretion or take special circumstances into account.
In addition, since 1996 councils have started using their own ?parking attendants? to issue penalty notices. Increasingly these are private contractors, motivated more by profit than justice. Penalty charge notices have soared from 3.7m in 1997 to 7.6m in 2004.
?You have to start from the point that (speeding and parking offences) are against the law,? said Paul Hodgson, a spokesman for the RAC. ?But there?s no substitute for the police. When you have private contractors and incentives, common sense (about whether a penalty is really merited or not) goes out of the window.?
The result is a festering feeling of injustice, as Oliver Kershaw, a furniture restorer who has received three parking fines in the past few weeks, attests. ?It feels like war,? he said. ?It?s quite clear councils aren?t working to the spirit of the law, but to make money.?
So unforgiving are the parking ayatollahs that John Conneely, a London businessman, recently had his Mitsubishi Pajero towed away for being parked with one wheel on the pavement. Conneely went to reclaim the car but had mislaid his keys. Nor was the car yet registered with the DVLA because he had bought it only a week earlier.
By the time he found his keys and could prove ownership, Haringey council had crushed his ?11,000 car and turned it into scrap. Rules are rules, it said.
Yet the rules for much more serious offenders are being bent left, right and centre, according to Fraser.
?When I joined the probation service in the 1960s, the policy was to target for probation people at the beginning of criminal careers. The purpose was to divert them from crime and it made sense,? he said. ?In the 1970s all that changed. The new policy was to divert offenders from prison ? to save money.?
For years successive governments have led the public to believe that probation and community service work and, at the same time, that Britain already jails more offenders than most countries. None of it is true, he says. ?It?s one of the biggest cons,? he said. ?They don?t want the public to know, and it?s the public paying the price.?
The prison population is another source of misinformation, Fraser claims. The public is led to believe that Britain jails more people than other comparable European Union countries, which is broadly true when you compare the number of prisoners with the total population.
But that, says Fraser, is meaningless. What matters is how many people are jailed compared with the number of people committing crimes. On that measure Britain, with its high crime rate, jails fewer people than many comparable countries.
OTHER experts dispute Fraser?s claims, arguing that matters are more complex than he would have us believe. According to Professor Mike Hough, director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at King?s College London, the sentencing of criminals has become a lot tougher over the past 15 years.
?The prison population has risen from 43,000 in 1992 to just under 80,000 today, with little change in the number of people coming before the courts,? he said. ?Over the 10-year period from 1991, the percentage of convicted burglars sent to prison rose from 37% to 60%, and for grievous bodily harm the figures are 28% rising to 54%.?
So the government can claim that it has got tougher on crime. But as Hough?s figures indicate, it got tougher from a low base. In 1950 about 5.5% of all offences ended in custody; by 1990 the figure was down to just 1%.
Yet the government remains keen to pursue alternatives to prison because it is seen as expensive and poor at rehabilitating offenders. The Home Office recently advised police to caution, rather than prosecute, numerous first-time offenders, including those admitting some types of assault and theft.
There was no such leeway for Bob Lloyd, boss of a small building company, who committed the heinous crime of parking outside his house. Though he parked legally ? because a previous restriction had been lifted ? he still received three fines.
He was forced to obtain local planning details under the Freedom of Information Act to prove his innocence. ?It was only when I turned up in court with the evidence that the tickets were scrapped,? he said. ?
Such disparities in being ?tough on crime? threaten to undermine respect for the law.
All offenders should be equal before the law; but in the court of public opinion, many people like Lloyd no longer think the law is equal for all offenders.