Put them in the stocks

The average person is not a criminologist. This is as obvious as saying that the average person doesn’t have many skills in dentistry. You’d think long and hard before you asked a random person in the street to fill one of your molars.

So, I’m pretty gobsmacked by a cracked new plan to give the public the opportunity to vote on punishments for convicted criminals.

Research carried out by the Cabinet Office has persuaded her that greater community engagement would not encourage vigilante activity or excessive punishments. (from the Guardian)

Yeah, right.

The mad ministers supporting this plan are keeping it for minor offences, because they know full well that letting rabid local prejudices determine the penalties for more serious crimes would lead to some horrific outcomes. But this implies that people found guilty of minor offences are likely to get less fair treatment than people convicted of major crimes. They might have the details of their offences posted online, for instance.

Smith feels that although the police are becoming better at informing local people about the progress of prosecutions, too many people “disappear” into the criminal justice system. She argues that “justice seen is justice done” and is backing plans for courts to set up local websites informing people of the fate of criminals and cases.

So, commit some minor offence and it is posted on the net for your friends, family, boss and any potential employer to find forever. If you assume that one offence of disorderly conduct should ruin your chances of getting employment for life, then fair enough. However, I thought that the possibility that people could incur a penalty and return to normal life after paying it was inherent in any concept of justice.

Anyone who thinks that it’s OK that getting found guilty of any minor offence means that you’re branded a criminal for life had better get used to there being a huge marginalised group of people with less than no chance of ever getting legitimate work. So, basically, forced to commit crimes to survive.

There are so many things wrong with this plan, I could rant for days. For example, penalties would be decided locally, so would clearly vary from place to place. Sentences are supposed to “reflect communities’ interests”. What if you lived in an area where most people oppose your race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, style of dress, or whatever? Would you get fair treatment. Or where you are really popular with the local “community leader”? Or vice versa.

What sort of people will feel they have a right to vote on the penalties for petty crimes? Smug bigots, busybodies, self-appointed community leaders, Daily Mail readers and so on. Is their thirst for vengeance going to be assuaged or fed by getting the right to lord it over petty offenders? Obviously not. They’ll see no reason why their solomonic wisdom shouldn’t be applied to more serious offences. And it’s hard for the government to argue that it’s OK to go down the medieval route for low-level crimes but that serious criminals should be protected by 21st century laws.

The government is already treating the opinions of people with expertise and training in dealing with petty offenders – the probation service – as irrelevant. On 30 December, the Probation Officers Union NAPO expressed unease with the government decision that people doing community service should wear reflective jackets that announce that they are serving a sentence.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, said organisations, including churches and charities, that offer unpaid work placements for offenders had become wary of using the vests after incidents of offenders being abused by the public, including missiles being thrown at them. “Many of these organisations are faith-based groups who believe it is not their role to oversee humiliation,” he said, adding that in one area a group of youths had chanted “nonces, smackheads, lowlifes” at one work group. (from the Guardian)

Well, yes, public humiliation is not actually acceptable as a penalty. I am pretty sure that the EC Human Rights Act and international law say something about “cruel and unusual” punishments. And that’s in terms of NOT using them.

The justice minister, David Hanson, fuelled the debate last night by saying he rejected the results of the Napo survey and expected all 42 probation areas to implement the introduction of the high-visibility clothing. “The public expects to see justice being done, and this is what the jackets achieve,” he said.

Hmm. NAPO claim to have evidence that offenders are being bullied and that charities don’t want community service workers to be stigmatised BUT the “justice” minister won’t accept this. He’s not interested at all really. When it’s a question of buying the Daily Mail reader vote, centuries of painfully developing a more humane justice system can go by the board.

“The public expects to see justice being done,” my arse. Is there any evidence for this, at all? Must we assume that the same imaginary people who are badgering Jaqui Smith for the opportunity to have an ID card are also badgering the Justice Minister to provide visible evidence that people convicted of minor offences are being punished? If this is the public’s expectation, it hasn’t been met for a good few centuries. The public used to get to see criminals thrown to the lions in Ancient Rome and to see public executions in pre-modern Europe. Is a public execution a reasonable expectation? Many people were so enraged against the parents of Baby P that they would have felt that execution was reasonable . Would they have the right to watch this over the internet if the death penalty was restored? Failing that, surely the public won’t be satisfied until they can watch Baby P’s murderers in jail on 24 hour webcam over the Internet.

Would this be OK with the minister, if the public’s need to see justice being done is so paramount?

Comically ironic that the case involving a search of a Tory MP’s office (over systematic leaks by a senior civil servant) has had most of Parliament enraged at the shocking suggestion that they could be subject to the same laws as everybody else. The incident seems to have well nigh destroyed the career of the police officer in charge, in sharp contrast to the very limited career damage suffered by senior police officers after the mere shooting of an unarmed Brazilian. Ironic also that the Blair era cash for honours investigations managed to go absolutely nowhere but brought complaints about the waste of public money on pointless police investigations… .

Silly me. There is one rule for MPs and another for the rest of us. So, I would like to share with MPs the mantra of the onward march of UK repression “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear.” 😀

Exercising some Restraint

Who’d have thought that until today – when there was a humane judgement against it – that the law allowed the “physical restraint” of youths in custody by means that would surely count as assault in any other context?

Lord Justice Buxton said the methods used had amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment” contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. (from the BBC website)

Examples of actions that are allowed are:

Methods used involved pulling back thumbs, and blows to the ribs and nose.

Why thumbs, ribs and nose? Because broken bones won’t be permanently disabling, I assume. Only excruciatingly painful. Hmm.

Private companies run four STCs in England and Wales for the Department of Justice.
Until June 2007, the rules restricted the use of physical restraint to cases where the approach was necessary for the prevention of escape, damage to property or injury.
The new rules, which were introduced after the deaths in custody of Gareth Myatt, 15, in Northamptonshire and Adam Rickwood, aged 14, in Co Durham allowed restraint when it was thought necessary to ensure good order and discipline. (from the BBC)

So “private companies” run youth prisons. Why does that not inspire confidence?

It looks as if the law used to allow officers to restrain young prisoners in the case of emergency, which seems reasonably fair enough, given the hellish task it must be to contain these damaged children, when containment seems to be all that we are socially capable of achieving.

The new rules – which don’t seem to have had massive publicity…. – talk about “good order and discipline.” Is it just me or does that refer to “anything the officers choose it to mean?”

People who assaulted their own children in such a manner would rightly be prosecuted. School teachers who assaulted their pupils would be sacked.

On first reading this, I assumed that these two teenagers had died as a result of attack by other prisoners. So there was some cock-eyed justification in it at least being intended to save lives. Not so.

Gareth Myatt, from Staffordshire, choked to death while being restrained at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre, near Daventry, Northamptonshire, in 2004.
And an inquest into the death of Adam Rickwood ruled that the teenager hanged himself after being restrained while at the Hassockfield Secure Training Centre in County Durham in 2004. He was the youngest person to die in custody in Britain. (from the BBC)

These kids died as DIRECT RESULT of restraint. Under the old rules.

Following the ruling, Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth said the full extent of physical restraint being used was “absolutely shocking”, adding that “it’s right that it is put to an end”.
“It’s a shame that it has taken the courts to force the government to stop this barbaric practice. Ministers should have done this a long time ago,” he said. (from the BBC)


The Ministry of Justice said it was “examining the court’s judgement with great care” and added that it would also be “considering an appeal”. (from the BBC)

On reading the guidelines for so-called “ethical restraint” techniques, as used in prisons and care homes, I found this page of golden rules on a site that offers training. Rule 4:

Never place pressure on or around the back, chest, stomach, face, neck, shoulders, major joints or the fingers. (from ECCRUK website)

Hmm, where do the Department of Justice rules allow these private companies to apply pressure, again?

Methods used involved pulling back thumbs, and blows to the ribs and nose.

Maybe I’m mistaking my physiology here but, last time I checked, the ribs were on the back and chest;the nose was dead centre of the face; and I assume thumbs count as fingers. So, the forms of restraint used in youth jails are clearly contrary to these golden rules.

Respect to the Equality and Human Rights Commission for intervening.

‘As the case reveals, the Ministry of Justice has failed young people on two counts. It has allowed staff at secure centres to use unlawful force – in violation of one of our most fundamental rights – and failed to consider the effect of these new rules on young people from ethnic minorities.’
‘Restraint should only be used as a last resort in cases where the young person might do harm to themselves or others – it is never to be used a way of ensuring young people in custody behave. Using pain as a means of creating order and discipline is entirely unacceptable.’ (John Wadham for EHRC, quoted on the EHRC website)