Friday, February 29, 2008

Prison Sentences

I have mentioned a few times that I am generally against prison, especially the way we use it in this country. However when we do use it it has to be used effectively and not brought in to disrepute.

I was therefore saddened to read this post on The Magistrates blog:

As Jack Straw looks desperately for a way out of the prison crisis (one that is mostly of the Government's making) there is talk of extending the early release scheme to free a few more spaces. So here are the numbers as they stand today:
Maximum sentence available to magistrates: 6 months. Let's call that 180 days. Defendant pleads guilty (most do) so one-third reduction. That's 120 days. That is automatically reduced by half, leaving 60 days. Current early release is 18 days, leaving 42 days to serve. That's six weeks. Prisons don't release at weekends or on bank holidays, so those with sentences expiring then are released the previous Friday, possibly knocking 2 more days off the sentence. If, as suggested in the press, early release is extended to 30 days, then the most that magistrates can hand down will be effectively 28 to 30 days - roughly four weeks. Hardly Judge Jeffreys is it?

A six month sentence lasting 4 weeks does nothing but bring the Magistrate and their court in to disrepute by making them look weak and irrelevant. If we consider why we use prisons:

1. As a punishment - 6month reduced to 4 weeks is hardly likely to cause any inconvenience to those who have got to the point where they are committing crimes that need a stiff sentence. Indeed I am sure anyone given a six month sentence and being released after 4 weeks will be a laughing all the way to the pub to tell their mates. This means that..

2. As a deterrence - said mates are going to here stories about how easy it all was (embellished no doubt but that doesn't matter) and hardly be deterred.

I have experience from my Army days that leaves me to believe that these types sentences can even even be counter productive.

I'd always understood the Magistrate's court system was about local people dispensing with local petty and less serious crimes, so that justice could be seen to be done and local circumstances considered. All this will do, IMHO, is push more cases to the Crown Court and cost us all a lot more money.

The more I read on the Magistrate's, and similar blogs, the more I realise that our legal, judicial and penal systems are degenerating in to farce, which isn't good for anyone.

I wish I knew the answer to this, but whatever it is it surely doesn't involve politicians - or at least if it does it has to be to impose some sort of control on them so we don't get knee jerk reactions every time the Sun's leader writers so boo.


markc said...

And of course in an ideal world, the prison sentence is about rehabilitation - but I'm not naive enough to think that's been a feature for many years, if ever. Another of those great, paternalistic, visionary dreams of Victorian times! You can't do much rehabilitation in 30 days, either.

MrsC rolls her eyes despairingly whenever I suggest that the birch might be an option for offenders of all age groups; quick, cost-effective, highly deterrent (repeat as necessary), and no hero-status amongst contemporaries (difficult to look hard when you've been reduced to screaming and crying, as opposed to having an ASBO and an RF transmitter). But especially if it were combined with a legal process providing a "non-declarable" category of conviction for people under the age of, say, 23. It could be argued that giving young people criminal records which then follow them for the rest of their lives (regardless of the RoO Act) is a cruel and unusual punishment - far more so than the temporary infliction of pain.

I know, I know.... it makes me sound like some old buffer with no respect for the nobility of the human condition (or, even worse, a Daily Mail / Daily Express / Sun reader). Problem is, though, many folk exhibit no such nobility; it needs to be earned, as far as I can see.

Oh well. Blimpish rant over. Normal "50+ male simmering rage mode" reengaged. I feel the need for some Floyd, I think.... :-D

The Great Simpleton said...


About the time you were writing your comment I was in the car with the Great Wiseone also discussing this subject. When I explained what was going on she too raised the issue of not enough time to rehabilitate offenders. Perhaps what we should do is tie early release to some individueal goal? I understand that a large proportion of low level criminals are illeterate and/or innumerate, perhaps teaching them and setting some form of exam will concentrate their minds? It must be easier for them to get jobs if they are functionally literate. I am sure that penal reform groups are asking for this but given the turnover in prisons it must be impossible to implement.

As for the birch, I remember my grandfather telling me that very few went back for it, and ceratinly he never heard of anyone bragging about receiveing it. He did say that just the passing of the sentence had been enough to make hard men cry. It isn't going to happen and I am not sure I could support it if it was proposed, but I suspepect I wouldn't be out demonstaring against it if it was passed in to law.

markc said...

Perhaps what we should do is tie early release to some individueal goal?

Yep, it'd be nice, but the probation service already tried setting goals - didn't work. Who sets the standard of measurement? Who sets the goal? Those with an interest in seeing a high % achievement, no doubt - so easy goals, early releases.

I'm not a hanger and flogger by instinct (I disagree with the death penalty). But I have been driven to the idea that there needs to be a serious standard of punishment to deter. The longer we leave it, the worse it'll be to correct the problem - what would you rather have? Birching, or the potential use of something far worse by some future administration in search of a quick fix? And no, I'm not entirely comfortable with the solution I'm describing.