Wednesday, November 11, 2015 

Pornageddon: nope, still isn't upon us.

As alluded to on Friday, last Thursday saw the House of Lords discuss pornography.  Generally, the near cliche that the Lords is a more urbane place with a higher standard of debate is mostly correct.  Party politics rears its ugly head far less often, and the fact some members of the other place have been appointed due to their expertise in one field or another does mean those debates at least are often more evidence based.

Obviously there are exceptions, and last Thursday was one.  It couldn't really be otherwise when the venerable Bishop of Chester opened the debate and confessed that tempted as he has been on occasion, he was not especially familiar with pornography.  Two of his clergy have in the past been prosecuted for downloading images of child sexual abuse, he felt it necessary to admit, but rest assured they won't be practising their Christian faith again.  Despite this lack of hands-on experience with porn, he nevertheless knew that it was bad for the soul, as indeed did the majority of other participants in the debate.  Both he and Baroness Uddin (best known for being suspended from the Lords for 18 months over her "made wrongly and in bad faith" expenses claims) quoted the charity Naked Truth, which helps those who have become "addicted" to pornography.  Evidence you really can become addicted to porn isn't easy to come by, but Naked Truth, predictably enough run by God-botherers (or more pertinently by the God-bothering son of a child abuse image downloading God-bothering charity boss), know better.

Indeed, anyone looking for evidence in the debate beyond the anecdotal for all the evils ascribed to pornography would do so in vain, but when those anecdotes are so colourful and so potentially worrying it's difficult to get beyond them.  Lord Farmer woke anyone who might still have been snoozing up with his insistence that teenage girls, from the Home Counties no less, not some "inner city urban jungle", were presenting to at least one GP with incontinence as a consequence of being unable to say no to demands for anal sex.  It was pretty much left to Baroness Murphy (and Lord Scriven, to give him credit also), a cross-bencher and academic psychiatrist, to point out that definitive proof of harm caused by violent pornography, let alone the humble garden soft or hard varieties remains lacking.  The studies that have been carried out were often the equivalent of cold laboratory tests, not involving the raison d'etre of pornography, masturbation.  A recent meta-analysis of not always very good data suggested some young men already predisposed to violence would watch correspondingly violent porn, but that in itself was not evidence of causality.

Those, as they say, are the facts.  We know very little about any negative effects porn has, and even less about the impact post the internet making it available to everyone, the vast majority of it free.  At the same time, it's a reasonable conclusion to draw that the effects of violent pornography, and other violent media in general for that matter have been fairly minimal, considering how violent crime has fallen across the Western world in the past 20 years, criminologists having failed to reach any overarching reason as to why.

When newspapers then attempt to draw a link between hard cases involving both children and adults on the basis that the perpetrators all used violent pornography and/or child abuse images, they ought at the very least be highly cautious.  First that they are mixing up the viewing of material that is illegal with that which might not be, and second that it is all but impossible to quantify the true role, if any, the material had on the perpetrator.  Both the criminal and the police often look for something to blame or explain, when the more prosaic truth might be they were always inclined to such acts.  Jamie Reynolds, the killer of Georgia Williams, had clearly long had a strangulation fetish.  Whether his use of pornography that depicted similar encouraged or drove his desire to turn fantasy into reality only he can answer, and it is not always wise to trust the word of a killer.  What we do know is that others with similar fetishes, which include women just as much as it does men, view the same material and do not ever want to turn a fantasy into consensual reality, let alone go further.  Just as important in Reynolds' case would be that he repeatedly wrote short stories about killing and then violating women, and that he had also written a script which to a certain extent he followed when murdering Georgia.  Rather than just consuming extreme images, he had been actively projecting himself as someone who could commit such a crime by putting it down on paper.

The same caution must be urged when it comes to claims of a "dramatic proliferation of online images of abuse and violent sexual acts" and "the huge increase in individuals who are accessing it".  Unlike with drugs, where there have long been reliable surveys alongside statistics on arrests and convictions, we don't have any real baseline figure of those accessing images of abuse, and so nothing solid on which to compare the numbers now being presented as showing a huge increase.  Even the merest scratching of the surface of online paedophilia necessitates visiting the dark web, and beyond that outright illegality lies.  The suggestion there are 50,000 to 60,000 individuals in the UK sharing abuse images online sounds as though it could be right, but there is no reason to believe that is any more or less than the number that have been involved for years.  More creditable is there has been a proliferation of images of abuse, but this is understandable when digital cameras and smartphones have made capturing abuse all the easier.  We should be equally critical about the alarm over "sexting" among teenagers, but the sharing of those images and the rise of "revenge porn" adds another possible explanation to the reported increase.

It would of course be lovely if we could, in the words of Baroness Murphy, not be so "virulent about an issue that we hardly know anything about".  We could also quote Myles Jackman, as Lord Scriven did, that “Pornography is the canary in the coalmine of free speech: it is the first freedom to die".  That has more than a ring of truth to it, but it's also the case that bad as the current law against "extreme" pornography is, it would be futile if not impossible for the government to follow through on its pledge during the election campaign to block porn sites that refuse to put in place age verification.  Pornageddon, whether it be in the form of good middle class teenage girls from Tunbridge Wells becoming incontinent from anal sex, or the construction of a great filth firewall, is not about to descend on us.  What we could do with is more in the way of evidence, but then as a nation we've always preferred to have a panic rather than take a step back.  Video nasty, anyone?

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Thursday, December 11, 2014 

"Nowhere to hide".

Call me a stick in the mud, but there really is something extraordinarily aggravating about the use of hashtags, in you know, real life.  They're bad enough online, especially when campaigns such as #CameronMustGo are like, totally indicative of the feeling of the general public and for it to be ignored is a typical example of the old media's systemic bias.  Or it could be no one cares about this particular circle jerk for a good reason.  Doesn't excuse them for the ones they do, mind.  Have the Chibok girls been rescued yet, incidentally?

It could be I just despise social media.  All the same, when a group uses a hashtag offline and combines it with an incredibly self-aggrandising statement, such as #WeProtectChildrenOnline, good cause or otherwise, it rather sets my teeth on edge.  Perhaps it's that protecting children so often means infantilising adults, or indeed, the state taking responsibility for that which should be left to parents to decide upon.  We're almost a year on from the universal rollout of "on by default" filtering, and spank me silly if it's made kids safer online by as much as a fraction, the vast majority deciding they prefer the internet uncensored, thank you very much.  Not that most do anything beyond going to Facebook with the odd surreptitious glance at insert your favoured porntube site here anyway.

Ministers regardless of party tend to be at their sanctimonious worst on all matters connected with child safety and the interwebs, understandable when you consider the legitimate concerns surrounding the danger posed by sexual predators online, less so when they're often responding to exaggerated and occasionally plain wrong coverage and campaigning in the media.  You then also have people like the former head of Ceop, Jim Gamble, who seems to imagine he's fighting a one man campaign ala Frank Castle against the evil of paedophilia, only without the guns.  Or the subtlety, for that matter.

Co-opting GCHQ fully into the battle against those particularly devious perverts who hide and exchange material via the dark nets, whether it be Tor, i2p or Freenet, is then a no-brainer.  Anything that makes people forget about things like Tempora, or Optic Nerve, which must have sucked up a fair share of exactly the material David Cameron now wants GCHQ to crack down on the better.  Except, as James Ball points out, GCHQ has been doing exactly this for quite some time already, and politicians have also been flagging up their work ever since the Snowden revelations.

If Cameron's speech really does signal a new offensive by the police and GCHQ against the paedophile forums on Tor, then clearly it's to be welcomed, at least up to a point.  There are reasons to be doubtful however, not least that if the intelligence agencies have found a way to identify both users and where the servers of dark net sites are hosted, the decision to first go after some of the drug markets was a curious one.  Operation Onymous didn't so much as seize a single child porn .onion, leading most to conclude the raids were down to sloppiness on the part of admins rather than flaws in Tor itself.  It might seem counter-intuitive that admins of drug markets are less security concious than paedophiles, until you realise they've still probably got less to lose if they're exposed than paedophiles have.

The other concern is that if Tor is broken, the knowledge of how to identify users will quickly become known to other, less enlightened security agencies, with the activists whom rely on Tor for anonymity the first in the firing line.  It also suggests that despite the encouraging comments from Simon Bailey, the Association of Chief Police Officers' lead on child protection, who said it was realism to admit it was impossible for the police to go after every person viewing child abuse, and that those caught who are determined not to be a risk to children should be treated as patients rather than go before a court, politicians and others are still pretending all those who do so will be brought to justice.  They won't be, not only as the resources aren't there considering the numbers of people estimated to have a sexual attraction to children, but also as combined with a VPN, the use of Tor or i2p offers fairly substantial protection.  Most paedophiles are caught not through being tracked down via the web but due to their cache of child abuse material being discovered by someone accessing their computer in person.

The recognition that a good percentage of those who view child abuse imagery will not themselves abuse children is at least a start.  If we can help those who fear they could act on their urges by not considering every paedophile as an abuser by default, encouraging others like Eddie to come forward, we might be on the way to further preventing abuse before it happens.  Despite the suggestions there isn't any help for paedophiles in this country unless they offend, I suspect if someone was to go to their GP and tell them about their problem they might well be referred either to a psychiatrist or for CBT, but that obviously also sets up the potential for precisely the exposure most paedophiles fear.

What doesn't help is the language of there "being nowhere to hide".  It's both false and encourages paedophiles to seek out the exact "refuges" which do so much to perpetuate the abuse politicians so desperately want to prevent.  Surely, in this post-Savile era, it's time for the debate to become more informed.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014 

Ched Evans is an unashamed rapist. That doesn't mean he shouldn't play football again.

Amid the outrage, the group resignation of patrons from Sheffield United Community Foundation and 160,000+ signatures calling for him not to be re-signed, you'll struggle to find any summary of how and why Chedwyn (you can see why he shortens it to Ched) Evans was convicted of rape, beyond that his victim was drunk and the jury decided that while she had consented to sex with Clayton McDonald, she did not with Evans.

This isn't because it suggests Evans is, as he claims, innocent, guilty only of infidelity to his girlfriend, who has supported him throughout.  If anything, it makes him look even worse.  According to the account provided by the Court of Appeal, the facts are these.  The victim  "literally stumbled across McDonald's path" some time after 3am on the morning of the 29/30th of May 2011.  CCTV footage from before then shows her falling over in a kebab shop, and indeed, she was such the worse for wear she left her handbag behind.  The taxi driver who took McDonald and the victim to a nearby Premier Inn said the victim's "upper clothing was somewhat dishevelled".  While in the taxi McDonald texted Evans "telling him that he had 'got a bird' or words to that effect".  The night porter at the Premier Inn described the victim as "extremely drunk".

Some time after the pair were showed to the room, Evans arrived with two other male friends.  Evans persuaded the porter to give him the key card to the room as he had "booked the room for a friend who no longer needed it".  McDonald and the victim stopped having sex when he opened the door.  This is when according to Evans the victim was asked whether he "could join in" and she replied in the affirmative.  The night porter, for whatever reason checking on what was happening, heard what he thought was a couple having sex and thought no more of it.  Evans' friends meanwhile were outside the bedroom window filming the goings on until the curtains were drawn.  It doesn't seem their recording picked up the exchange Evans says there was between him and the victim.

About half an hour later Evans and McDonald left the room.  McDonald spoke to the porter before leaving the hotel, telling him to look out for the girl in room 14 as she was sick, while Evans went through a fire exit.  Both men then went back to Evans' home.  The victim woke up at 11:30am with no memory of what had gone on, and straight away went to the police.

The prosecution's case was the room at the Premier Inn was booked for the "sole purpose of procuring a girl or girls later that night".  The defence stated Evans had in fact booked it for McDonald and a friend to use to stay in.  Despite being in Rhyl all evening, it seems McDonald hadn't succeeded in meeting anyone who wanted to go back to the hotel with him until by chance a young woman he must have realised was extremely drunk approached him and asked what he was doing.  The jury in acquitting McDonald and finding Evans guilty seems likely to have decided, as the Court of Appeal puts it

that even if the complainant did not, in fact, consent to sexual intercourse with either of the two men, that in the light of his part in what happened -- the meeting in the street and so on -- McDonald may reasonably have believed that the complainant had consented to sexual activity with him, and at the same time concluded that the applicant [Evans] knew perfectly well that she had not consented to sexual activity with him (the applicant).

They also note the jury might have considered the different ways in which McDonald and Evans left the hotel to have been relevant.

Regardless of what you think of the behaviour of all involved, the case was as the CoA puts it, a "classic case for decision by the jury".  A different jury might well have reached a different verdict on the same evidence.  Nonetheless, all of Evans' appeals to date have failed.  It could be he is the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice.  It could also be, and it has to be said this is my view, that both he and McDonald took despicable advantage of someone they must have known to have been incapable of truly consenting to sex.  When you then consider the further extenuating circumstances, that immediately after Evans' conviction the victim's name was being spread on Twitter and she was being denounced as a liar and worse, not to mention his wholesale lack of remorse, you can more than understand why some don't want to see Evans playing football for Sheffield United again.

Except the campaign against Evans isn't being fought on those grounds, for the good reason a person sent to prison shouldn't be stopped from returning to their job once released unless it was directly relevant to the crime, or if the conviction makes it impossible for them to resume, i.e. if they were in a position of true authority.  All the onus has instead been put on the "role model" argument, the exact same one so often snatched at by tabloids when they've uncovered a footballer having an affair or a celebrity taking drugs, having failed to prove hypocrisy.  This assumes first that anyone who plays football at a professional level can be held up as a role model, that the simple act of pulling on a football shirt elevates them above normal mortals and demands they show extra responsibility, lest anyone is naive enough to think what a player does off the pitch is just as worthy of emulation as what they do on it.  This is quite the burden to put on the shoulders of young players, whom regardless of their new found status are likely to be just as immature as their peers who aren't in the public eye.

Second, the argument seems to suggest some people can be so overawed by the status of someone they admire that any other bearing on their thinking, whether it be friends, parents or siblings can be disregarded.  There is perhaps something to Jean Hatchet stating that for Sheffield United to re-sign Evans would be to send a message that "men who commit such atrocious crimes will suffer only a small penance whilst the women they attack suffer for the rest of their lives", but Evans, whether he plays again for United or not, will forever be remembered as being convicted of rape and having caused this entire furore.  Some Sheffield United fans have responded in a way that gives credence to the claim re-signing Evans trivialises his offence, and the club while condemning the abuse meted out to Jessica Ennis-Hill could have justified its decision to allow Evans to train with the team instead of hiding behind the PFA's request far better, yet fans will nearly always defend their club when they perceive it as under attack, as we saw with Liverpool and Luis Suarez.  Sheffield United players have not worn t-shirts defending Evans for one thing.

It's also come to something when Julie Bindel, of all people, wonders if the campaigns against Dapper Laughs and Julien Deblanc aren't in danger of morphing into a censorship akin to the one her generation detested when it was led by Mary Whitehouse.  Evans is clearly a separate issue, but it does as she writes distract from dealing with the wider issue of misogyny and outdated attitudes in general in the game; when Richard Scudamore can say he wouldn't employ a rapist, but is more than happy to bully smaller clubs and remain friends with people who refer to women as "gash" then it's not as though an example is being set at the very top.  The underlying sentiment may be the right one; whether Evans and Sheffield United are the right target at the right time remains to be seen.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014 

On naming Will Cornick.

Hard cases, so it goes, make bad law.  Much the same applies when it comes to what judges themselves recognise are extraordinary cases.  The murder of Ann Maguire, stabbed to death in her classroom by a then 15-year-old pupil, named as William Cornick after the judge lifted the legal restrictions on naming juveniles accused and convicted of criminal offences, is sadly not entirely without precedent.  Maguire did not so much as intervene in a fight as headmaster Philip Lawrence did, though; she died purely as a result of Cornick's long developing irrational hatred of her, fostered by what might well have been similarly developing personality disorders.

As always in these instances, especially when someone pleads guilty at all but the first opportunity, how much of what would have been the prosecution case can be taken as beyond dispute is open to doubt.  Despite media reporting which might give the impression, Mr Justice Coulson in his sentencing remarks does not accept without question that Cornick had been planning to kill Maguire for the best part of three years, although Cornick had certainly not hidden the violent animosity he felt towards her.  At Christmas last year he told a friend on Facebook he intended to "brutally kill" her, later writing in February of how Maguire "deserves more than death more than pain torture and more than anything that we can understand".  He later told the prosecution's leading psychiatric expert he firmly made up his mind to kill Maguire the Thursday before the murder, rather than killing himself.  Whether he truly intended to also kill or at least attempt to kill two other teachers, as has been reported, is dubious; after stabbing Maguire the opportunity to seek them out had he so wished was there.  He instead went and calmly sat back down in the classroom, remarked it was a pity how she was (at that point) still alive and then gave himself up meekly when two other teachers arrived.

Cornick's actions are not just unusual in terms of how minors rarely kill, and how when they do they most often kill other children, but in that he killed both an adult and one in a position of authority.  The first apparent instance of a student killing a teacher in the classroom itself in this country, a grim fact that brings into focus how we've escaped the worst of the violence other nations have experienced in schools since the Dunblane massacre, it would have taken an especially brave, or indeed, foolish, judge to refuse the request from the media for the section 39 order preventing his identification to be lifted.  More eyebrow raising perhaps is that the application was led by the Guardian.

One letter writer criticising the paper comments on how the leader in defence of the application seems almost embarrassed at its role.  Certainly, by far the most important principle at work is that justice should be seen to be done.  This is obviously not an absolute: most I suspect would now accept the decision by Mr Justice Morland to lift the s39 order on Jon Venables and Robert Thompson was the wrong one, fuelling rather than dampening the moral panic that followed the murder of James Bulger, as David Omand noted in his review (PDF) into what, if anything went wrong in the supervision of Venables following his conviction for possessing child pornography.  In his extended reasoning on why he is lifting the order, Mr Justice Coulson dismisses the arguments made by Cornick's defence counsel that it could affect his right to life under the HRA, opening him to attack by others at the secure unit where he is detained, and could in turn increase his risk of suicide.  As he is already on permanent 24-hour suicide watch, which in turn limits his interactions with others being held, the increased risk is at least for now fairly negligible.

Where Coulson's balancing of Cornick's welfare with the right of the press to name him is more questionable is on how it could affect his parents, and on the wider issues raised by the crime itself.  In an especially unusual move, Cornick's parents sat alongside him in the dock as he was sentenced, a request allowed by Coulson.  As they've more than reasonably refused interviews and requested privacy, we can't know their exact thinking so can only guess, but you would hazard it was a gesture meant for Maguire's friends and relatives, expressing the remorse and guilt their son has refused to, hating what he did while still being there for him.  Coulson suggests this level of support is unlikely to be affected by his being named, but there is surely a myriad of difference between being known locally as the parents of a notorious killer, and then suddenly being thrust into the limelight nationally as such.  At the end of his ruling Coulson expressly criticises the media for how they conducted themselves outside court on Monday, calling it "shameful", and this was in reference to how journalists and photographers jumped onto the car bringing the Maguire family to the hearing.  If that's how they acted towards the victim's relatives, just what behaviour can the Cornicks expect?

Equally problematic is Coulson's view that debate on "the safety of teachers, the possibility of American-style security measures in schools, and the dangers of 'internet loners' concocting violent fantasies on the internet" will be informed by Cornick's naming.  As he says, this is an exceptional case.  It is however very far from exceptional for teenagers to have violent fantasies, at the same time as not having the slightest inclination of carrying them out in reality.  Few if any of Cornick's friends seem to have believed he was truly capable of such a horrific act of violence until it was too late to prevent it.  Coverage has focused not so much on the rarity of Cornick's crime as it has on whether he could have been stopped, as well as his wholesale lack of remorse and empathy for his victim.  Cornick may not have been aiming for notoriety as some others who have committed acts of violence at their schools have, but it is nonetheless what his crime has wrought.  Plastering his face across front pages, this boy least likely to kill, who hid "strong feelings of anger" beneath his "outward appearance", does not seem likely to deter those harbouring similar feelings exacerbated by mental health problems or disorders.

Coulson for his part dismisses any naysayers on just how much of a deterrent naming is, writing "Ill-informed commentators may scoff, but those of us involved in the criminal justice system know that deterrence will almost always be a factor in the naming of those involved in offences such as this".  Some of us may indeed be ill-informed, but is someone such as Frances Crook, or Ben Gunn for that matter?  Unlike others who have questioned the sentence itself, in the circumstances it does not seem excessive for a pre-meditated, brutal murder committed in front of other children, even with Cornick's age and capacity for rehabilitation taken into account.  If the psychiatrists and psychologists who have spoken with and examined him at length are right in that he has a personality disorder with marked psychopathic traits, he might will never be released.

Naming Cornick has also had the effect of putting attention almost wholly on him rather than on Maguire and the influence she had on so many lives.  Most of us remember a teacher who went beyond mere platitudes and was actively inspirational, for whom nothing was too much trouble, who could be a friend at the same as demanding that you aspire for more than just mediocrity.  For 40 years it seems Maguire was that teacher, leaving separate generations much to be thankful to her for.  All until a indistinct, hateful young man took against her for reasons no one, not even he can properly explain.  Justice might have been served by naming him, but it also would have been in two years' time when he reaches 18 and his protection under s39 lapses.  It would have allowed Maguire to be remembered as she deserved to be, rather than as a bit-part in a story where the victim always ranks after the perpetrator.

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Monday, March 31, 2014 

50 shades of Grayling.

(I am really, really sorry for the title.)

Isn't Chris Grayling brilliant?  Most other politicians would have realised within a week they were fighting a losing battle over something so petty and self-defeating as preventing prisoners from having books and clothing sent into them by their relatives, and backed down, setting say a limit of one parcel allowed every six weeks.  Grayling instead has decided to resort to every excuse possible as to why such a scheme couldn't be established, even if his choice reason is one he didn't even mention in his first missive on why prisoners have to earn the right to everything under his new tough rehabilitation/privileges regime.

Yes, the real reason why prisoners can't be sent books from outside is, of course, drugs, with a side order of not allowing in extremist or pornographic material.  Grayling didn't mention a thing about illegal substances in his first response for, only that allowing in unlimited parcels would never be secure.  No one had suggested such a thing, but let's put that to one side.  Next, in a piece for Conservative Home, Grayling did open his case by asking whether it should be made easier to smuggle drugs into prison, yet he then spends much of the rest of his article complaining about how a "left-wing pressure group" (not the most accurate description of the Howard League) and other opponents are liberal lunatics for daring to disagree with him in general.  Lastly, in an open letter to the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who took part in a protest outside Pentonville prison last Friday against the ban, he strikes a far more emollient tone, while sticking to the whole drugs argument.

The obvious problem with Grayling's it's the drugs, stupid rhetoric, apart from how he's only grasped for it once everyone realised even some of the most ruthless governments on the planet still allow those they incarcerate to read as much or as little as they want, is that it's so easily solved.  Until recently Send Books to Prisoners acted as an intermediary through which relatives could send packages, making the chances of anyone trying to get banned materials through far more remote.  Rolling out such a system across the prison estate would be fairly simple.  In any case, the idea that the main way drugs get into prisons is in parcels is a nonsense: they're either brought in by the prison officers themselves or chucked over a wall, although visitors have also long chanced their arm.  In any case, more recently the most smuggled items by visitors have been mobile phones rather than drugs.

Still, you can't be too careful even if it is just books and not drugs, hence why Grayling also brings up the spectre of paedophiles "accessing illegal written pornographic material" if books aren't properly checked as to their content.  This seems to ignore how people will masturbate to almost anything if they can't get their hands on their favoured stuff, or indeed how the more ingenious will write their own such stories to be shared if they have no intention of addressing their behaviour.  Nor should the prison librarians themselves have to put up with slurs on their work, again despite no one suggesting they were at fault.  It's just that as library provision outside prison has been cut back, with local authorities also being in charge of their equivalents behind closed walls, it's hardly going to be surprising if the offering isn't as comprehensive as it could be.

Throughout his responses, the one question Grayling has failed to answer is why the privileges scheme can't be altered to allow such vital, humanising items as books, underwear and homemade cards from relatives to be sent in, while still leaving the rest of his changes unaffected.  Is it because cuts to the Ministry of Justice/Home Office have left prisons with too few staff to possibly process anything other than letters?  Is it down to how he really does believe denying prisoners the most basic things that make life worth living, unless they are earned, builds character and helps rehabilitation?  Or is it this has all been bluff, and that once the furore has died down, Grayling will allow a compromise whereby books and other items can be sent through an intermediary every so many weeks?

You have to hope it's the third and Grayling can be embarrassed into doing the right thing.  It does however speak volumes that not so much as a peep has been heard from backbench Liberal Democrat MPs on the matter, while Simon Hughes has supported Grayling.  If the intention has been to prevent any other former jailbirds from getting a Graun column on release though, perhaps we shouldn't be quite so hasty.

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Monday, March 24, 2014 

If hospitals cure...

There's been much comment, understandably, following the blog post from Frances Crook setting out how the new privileges regime in prisons means that the sending in of books, or indeed, almost anything other than a letter or a bought as opposed to homemade card has been banned.

This also covers magazines, and in my view, most outrageously, clothes.  At the discretion of the governor, as the prison service instructions on incentives and earned privileges set out (DOC), prisoners may be allowed to receive a "one-off clothing parcel" after conviction.  Otherwise, that's that.  Unless they're one of the few lucky enough to get a job in the prison and earn money to buy themselves some extra apparel, they'll be stuck wearing prison issue clothes, most likely worn by dozens of inmates before them.  Just how draconian these new restrictions are is made clear by the exception for unconvicted prisoners, who must be allowed to have "sufficient clean clothing sent into them from outside" (page 45).  In other words, those convicted may be stuck wearing the same, dirty clothes for much of their time inside.  As one of the conditions for getting on to even the standard level of privileges is to have "due regard for personal hygiene and health (including appearance, neatness and suitability of clothing)", this seems to have been designed specifically to make life as miserable as possible.

Suitably excised by all the liberal do-gooders demanding that prisoners have the right to read books when most have no intention of doing so, Chris Grayling has duly responded.  Why, the idea prisoners cannot have books is a nonsense!  They are allowed to have up to 12 in their cell at one time, so long that is as they brought them in to start with, as trips to the prison library are infrequent and there's no guarantee they'll have something the inmate will want to read.  Besides, they can also buy books with the money they earn from their job while detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure.  Those with a job are guaranteed the princely sum of at least £4.00 per week, meaning that if they don't buy anything else they can afford a paperback every two weeks.  That is if the paperback is £5.99, as those with a television set in their cell have to pay £1.00 a week rent for that privilege.  Those who don't have a job are guaranteed at least £2.50 a week, which with the £1 taken off for TV rent leaves them with £1.50 to spend as they please.  They're also not allowed to watch the TV when they could be working, even if there aren't any jobs or programmes for them to attend.  Grayling also says prisoners were never allowed unlimited parcels, which they certainly weren't.  To completely deny them anything other than letters and cards sent by friends or relatives however is a new and drastic change.

The reasoning behind all this is supposedly to decrease reoffending.  For years we heard of how "cushy" prisons had become, with even certain Sky channels allowed in private sector prisons.  Stop allowing inmates to lounge around watching daytime TV, get them either working or learning, and soon the astronomical recidivism rate will come down.  Except the reality is that even before the cuts made to the prison system there weren't enough jobs to go round, nor can every minute be spent either on specific programmes or in education (spot checks found an average of 25% of a prison's population locked up during the day).  Those not doing either are banged up, and deprived of TV or reading material the obvious result is boredom.  Boredom leading to depression, or alternatively, aggression.  How this is meant to reduce reoffending is not explained, nor does it seem there is any actual evidence suggesting a stricter privileges regime could help.  The PSI certainly doesn't suggest this is an attempt to reduce reoffending; the desired outcome section only sets out that "prisoners will engage with their rehabilitation".  Engaging is meaningless if their circumstances are much the same on release, which for most they will be.

Why then do it, when the risk surely is that even if not directly, the new restrictions might lead to the opposite of what is intended, even to riots?  The answer that it appeals to both the tabloids and to those who believe, more than reasonably, that prison is meant to be harsh and unpleasant doesn't really cover it.  That hardly anyone apart from those affected and their relatives knew is testament to the tiny impact it would have on the overall impression of the government, Grayling, or the prison system.

Instead, it's hard to shake the impression that Grayling gave the OK to such changes precisely because he could.  As with Iain Duncan Smith and his unshakeable belief that he is right and all of his critics are wrong or far worse, Grayling gives the impression of a man who always knows best.  We don't need any trials of probation privatisation, it just needs to be done.  Prisoners have wronged society, therefore allowing them new, clean underwear apart from that bought with their own money is a luxury they have forfeited.  Depriving someone who enjoyed reading outside with the means to keep up their habit is a punishment.  That some will have read to improve their literacy skills is irrelevant.  Posing as tough rarely costs votes, as long as that stance doesn't lead to prisoners on roofs.  And let's hope for Grayling's sake that doesn't happen.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013 

Let's be beastly to crims (and dole bludgers).

It's the week of the local elections, which means it's the absolute opportune time to announce a new round of unpleasantness to those considered to be unpleasant.  Moving away from the usual targets, benefit claimants (on whom more in a moment), Chris Grayling has pounced upon the only people less popular with politicians, those convicted of crime rather than just deemed guilty of a moral one.

Out then go the old soft regimes where it was somewhat left up to prison governors how they operated the privileges system in their respective nicks, and in comes a new tougher scheme which seems focused on making the first two weeks in prison even more uncomfortable and depersonalising than it was already.  No longer will prisoners be allowed to wear their own clothes to begin with, have a TV in their cell (Ben Gunn says those on the basic level don't as it stands now; they also have to pay for them, contrary to popular belief), an increased number of visits or access to private cash; all must instead be earned.  Plenty of people will look at that and think that all sounds perfectly reasonable, and on one level it is.  The problem though is that it's the first few days in prison when those who are new to the experience are at their most vulnerable, both from other prisoners and themselves.  If the purpose of prison is to both punish and rehabilitate, then it helps no one if further avoidable harm is done to the individual at the very outset of their sentence.

As with so much of our policy on prisons, a little honesty and humility would go a long way.  Again, few are going to protest at prisoners being made to work a longer day, but they might if they knew there aren't enough jobs to go round in the first place, or what prisoners get in return for their labour.  There are a few schemes where they can earn in the region of £30 a week, although far more usual is pay of £4 to £10.  This is often work of the most menial kind, as a recent Howard League for Penal Reform report set out, and which hardly gives the kind of experience likely to impress employers on the outside.  For those who can't be found a job, they're likely to spend most of their time banged-up. While it's not explained exactly how prisoners can be stopped from watching TV in the daytime if they're on the higher privilege level and have one, what else are they expected to do? Read, if they haven't already finished those books they've got? Continue with any education programmes they're on, regardless of the lack of access to a tutor? Just kick their heels? Imposing boredom might be considered a punishment, but it brings with it its own set of obvious problems.

Nor do these changes take into consideration those who continue to maintain their innocence.  As admitting guilt is the first thing you have to do in order to take part in the rehabilitation programmes designed to prove your readiness to be released, those who refuse to do so will forever be stuck on the basic level, something that seems bound to lead to a legal challenge.  Then there are just the silly inconsistencies: prisoners won't be allowed 18 rated DVDs (they've long been prohibited items in medium or low security hospital wards), but will presumably be able to watch such films if they're shown on television.

The ultimate test of such changes ought to be whether they improve behaviour while in prison or decrease recidivism upon release.  One expects that studies will be established once the changes start in November to measure if this turns out to be the case.  Otherwise you could be forgiven for thinking the entire episode was designed as a purely populist measure to win a few votes during the traditional period of purdah.

Definitely not designed to win votes is the latest imposition on those without a job, a questionnaire apparently put together by the government's behavioural science unit, which must be completed on pain of the loss of benefits.  Those looking for work are presented with 48 statements, some of which are patently ridiculous ("I have not created anything of beauty in the last year"), and then asked whether they agree or disagree.  Any possibility this might help those lacking self-esteem or self-confidence is only slightly undermined by how the results at the end are largely identical regardless of whether you fill in the boxes or not.  For those worried about the creepiness of a test that bears more than a resemblance to the Oxford Capability Analysis carried out by Scientologists, it doesn't seem as though the results are recorded, which nonetheless isn't much of a reassurance.  Nor is it apparent what the point of it is, although that seems a perfectly adequate summary of the work of the "nudge" unit thus far.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012 

David Cameron is duly invited to the vomitorium.

All things considered, there are relatively few things I find so anathema that they make me feel physically ill.  Coming from someone who was so often throwing up at one point that I was ironically nicknamed "sick", factor in I barely feel comfortable in my own skin at most times, and this is quite the statement.  Compare me to David Cameron for instance, who finds the mere prospect of prisoners gaining the right to vote so terrible that he gets the urge to purge, and it's apparent my constitution is positively cast iron.

Cameron is by no means the only politician moved to blow chunks at having to give the franchise to those currently detained at her majesty's pleasure.  Truth be told, I'd wager the vast majority couldn't care less or quite probably even privately support giving some behind bars the opportunity if they so wish to vote.  It's that this is something being forced on them by the European Court of Human Rights.  If there's one thing politicians can't stand it's being told that they have to do something, unless of course it's the Daily Mail or the Sun doing the ordering, in which case they immediately hop to it.  Combine this with how it's the European court saying we have to change the law, even if the ECHR doesn't have anything to do with the European Union, as well as how this is about the supposed human rights of those who some on the right feel should count themselves lucky they aren't given just bread and water and left with only a bucket to piss and shit in, and it's a no brainer.  If they can't pontificate about this at pompous length, just what can they hiss and moan about?

Sadly, like it or not, the government has to look as though it's at least starting the process of changing the law or the Council of Europe might start imposing a few tiny fines over our intransigence.  In reality it's not so much the Council the government's worried about as it is prisoners starting legal action demanding compensation for being denied their rights, something that will almost certainly cost far more than any fines from Europe.

In line with the deadline set by the ECHR expiring tomorrow, the coalition has then duly set out the earliest possible draft of its prospective legislation (PDF).  In clear defiance of the court is that one of the options available to MPs will be to vote against any prisoners gaining the franchise, with the other choices to extend it to those serving sentences of less than 6 months and 4 years respectively.  Since the last skirmish over these proposals, the legal situation has changed slightly, as the draft bill sets out.  The grand chamber of the ECHR found in the case of Scoppola v. Italy (No.3) that it wasn't necessary for the judge at the time of sentencing to specifically remove the right to vote from the guilty party.  It did however reaffirm the principle that a blanket ban was discriminatory, so the inclusion of the do nothing option in the draft bill is the equivalent of sticking two fingers up to the court.

As Joshua Rozenberg (always worth remembering Rozenberg is married to Melanie Phillips, so he must have had a really enjoyable past week) sets out though, the government does still have significant leeway.  The ECHR doesn't demand that the law be changed immediately; merely that they set in motion the process of altering it.  This it has duly done, albeit at the last possible moment.  Whether the eventual published bill will make its way to the statute book before the next election is therefore highly doubtful.

Nonetheless, by including the status quo option at all the government seems to be setting itself up for a fall.  If it had really wanted to make things difficult for the ECHR while still complying with successive rulings, it could have gone for an even shorter limit than 6 months; why not 3 months, or 4 weeks?  It may well be that the joint committee will subsequently reject the option of offering no change in the bill, but that seems unlikely considering the strength of feeling among MPs.  The thinking appears to be that as long as the issue is defined in law, regardless of how, the court will have to bow to the will of parliament.

Not only is this foolish considering the legal advice, it's at odds with the coalition's somewhat enlightened views on attempting to reduce the level of reoffending.  Only this week Chris Grayling announced that all those sentenced to a year or less would be given a mentor on release who would try to guide them away from a return to crime, a sound idea, albeit one that needs resources and ingenuity the government and its favoured private sector contractors tend not to have.  Recognising that cutting those serving short sentences off from society until the day they're dumped back on the street is damaging rather than beneficial ought to be the first step towards designing a rehabilitation programme that truly works.  By allowing those serving under a year to vote if they so wish would be a further sign that regardless of what they've done, they will shortly be a member of their local community again, with all the rights and responsibilities (ugh) that entails.  Plus, if it means David Cameron and Tory backbenchers heaving as they go through the division lobbies, that's an incalculable bonus.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012 

Britain broken no more.

Remember the good old days of a few years ago when the arrival of the latest crime statistics invariably led to both the Conservatives and the tabloids arguing that the end was nigh?  I do, mainly because I then went and looked at the actual figures. Even a quick browse showed that both were being either highly selective, relying on the police figures over the results of the British Crime Survey on violence against the person for example, or highlighting only one aspect of recorded crime, such as the use of a specific weapon when the numbers being attacked and killed were in fact in decline.

It's interesting to note then that the release of today's figures, showing that despite the recession crime continues to fall, with only theft from the person increasing, has been met with an almost universal shrug.  There's no report as yet on the Sun's website, while the Mail has been left with having to put a story alongside its article on a "teenage yob" being given just a final warning after beating a boy with his own crutches.  Unlike how the Conservatives couldn't wait to pile in on any sign that Labour was being "soft on crime", on occasion concocting figures to such an extent that they were warned by the UK Statistics Authority they were likely to "mislead the public", the opposition's response has been just as low key, focusing mainly on the drop in the numbers of police officers.

Welcome as this is when the British Crime Survey suggests the chance of being a victim of crime is its lowest since it began, it's also indicative of how the right-wing press tends to play dirtier with Labour governments than they do with the Tories.  The Sun for instance claimed that a mistake in recording GBH was an indication Labour had been cooking the figures altogether, something it had no evidence whatsoever to back-up.  Admittedly, some of this was Labour making a rod for their own back: the consistent tough talking from home secretary after home secretary led all but inexorably to the press shrieking when the next moral panic arrived.  Just though as we barely hear a peep from David Cameron about the broken society now he's in power, even as hundreds of thousands have to rely on food banks, so the paper that did the most to promote the notion has "moved on".  As for any even grudging recognition that crime fell massively while Labour was in power, even if the two things are not necessarily connected, we'll be waiting a long time.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011 

Where do we find these lunatics?

Even as someone with an, ahem, slight interest in the media and a loathing of the tabloids, I do on occasion get slightly tired of the knee-jerk bashing of the so-called popular press that gets featured in the "unpopular" Graun. Equally, on occasion, it's well worth reminding yourself of just how utterly vile the likes of the Sun can be: an editorial in today's paper comments, presumably in reference to the Graun's Reading the Riots research, that "[F]our months on, the Left has regrouped to concoct its perverse excuses for evil".

It's a sentence that sums up so much about the Sun's editorial mindset. That the "Left" would not have had to do any sort of "regrouping" had the government ordered a proper independent inquiry into the worst outbreak of disorder on our streets for a generation goes completely unmentioned. After all, why would they when both the Sun and the prime minister knew the causes the second the rioting began? It was what they've been spent the last umpteen years banging on about, not just the broken society, but a sick one, sick due to the collapse of responsibility, an underclass created through welfare dependency and worklessness, with the streets controlled by gangs. An inquiry might suggest that this wasn't a full or even partial picture, or worse still, have provided as the Sun so wonderfully puts it, "perverse excuses for evil".

This isn't to suggest that the Guardian and LSE's work has been a success, nor that its provisional findings can't be used to provide excuses. As others have pointed out, it's not wholly surprising that so many of those who took part hate the police, or are now pointing to their antipathy towards them as to why London and other parts of the country burned for four nights if they've been convicted previously. Far more interesting would have been a comparison between those convicted before they took part and those who hadn't as to their attitudes towards the police, as well as to how many times they'd been stopped and searched, if any. Indeed, even better would have been a quantitative rather than a qualitative study, or at least one running alongside the other: finding out why some from the same area and background rioted and others didn't would have added much to the debate. Instead, we're having to sift through those who not only enjoyed themselves but are now essentially boasting about what they did, such as the young man who supposedly came off a foreign holiday to take it part, and those who now deeply regret their getting caught up in the moment. Self-aggrandisment, rationalisation and honesty have all become mixed up.

To paint this though as "concocting perverse excuses for evil" is a wonderful reflection of the complete lack of curiosity on the part not of the Sun's readers, but on those who write for them, imagining they're speaking their language. At its heart it is not only obtuse and ignorant, it's also deeply anti-intellectual. You don't have to be even slightly sympathetic towards those who rioted to want to prevent it from happening again, and to even have a chance of that you have to at least attempt to understand why.

So much though when filtered through the tabloid impurity process becomes lost in translation. As they could have expected, the Homicide Review Advisory Group's call for a change to the law on murder has been ridiculed in the most disparaging terms when anyone can see that reform is long overdue. On a number of levels, the current mandatory sentence of at least 15 years and then a lifetime spent on licence is not working: not for those who commit a "mercy killing" who then take up the time of probation officers unnecessarily, nor for those who expect a "life" sentence to mean life, when in practice only a tiny number who receive them will never be released. In essence, what was originally passed as sop to those who opposed the abolition of capital punishment has become a monument to the lack of trust government has in judges. The very people who are best placed to rule on how dangerous someone is and how long they should serve before their case is reviewed are not fully trusted to do so.

In the Sun, all these nuances and reasoned arguments are reduced to liberal do-gooders wanting to downgrade murder. Whether or not either Linda Bowman or Richard Taylor were given a proper summary of what the report calls for or rather just told it argues for the abolition of mandatory life sentences, both ripped into any change, which was exactly what the paper wanted them to. Over in the same editorial as we began, the leader writer asks:

Where do we find these lunatics?

Where indeed.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011 

Clarke should resign and truly break the cycle.

The usual tendency in politics is to offer much before you win power, then to do very little, if not the direct opposite to that you promised once you're in it. Ken Clarke and the Conservatives seemed for a time to have got it backwards. Despite their manifesto making the usual noises on law and order, with mandatory jail sentences for those committing a crime using a knife and a pledge to "redevelop" the prison estate to ensure early release wasn't necessary again, Clarke was swiftly given the authority to almost completely ignore the hardback blue tome. Helped along by the cuts being made to his budget, Clarke quickly proposed measures that would have resulted in a drop in the prison population of around 6,500, while there were to be further sentence discounts for early guilty pleas.

As quickly as this surprise was sprung on us, it's been taken away. Clarke, it has to be said, didn't make things easy for himself. With the tabloids always likely to oppose even the slightest changes to a system they have had a major part in imposing upon us, he had to watch his every step and take a softly softly approach. His unfortunate performance during a 5 Live interview presented them with a massive open goal, which they took advantage of gleefully. Since then we've had the riots, and with so much else the government is doing becoming increasingly unpopular, Ken has been fighting a losing battle. First went his sentence discount plans and call for more community sentences, and now his opposition to mandatory terms with the exception of those convicted of murder has also been overruled.

Whether this has any connection to the battle between Clarke and Theresa May over that darn cat, or if indeed the apparent animosity had surfaced before then is difficult to tell. May has never really come across as a populist, so maybe it's simple cynicism: doing what the tabloids want in an attempt to get them to back off elsewhere. Certainly, Cameron could hardly have been comforted by the continual attacks from the Sun over his dropped promise on knife crime. To them, anyone carrying a knife is a savage, regardless of whether they're doing it out of fear or youthful stupidity, and so deserves to spend at least four months in prison. Rather than allowing a judge or magistrate to make their own decision based on the circumstances of each individual case, the government must intervene and take the matter out of their hands.

Clarke did at least fight his corner. Even on Tuesday he was arguing in front of the home affairs select committee that it would be a "bit of a leap for the British justice system" for the government to demand a court send a 13-year old first time offender to a secure home. Yesterday he was left to stand up in the Commons and announce that while he had managed to prevent that from happening, 16 and 17-year-olds would face a mandatory term should they use a knife or other offensive weapon to "threaten or endanger", which essentially means waving it around even if they have no intention of actually doing anything with it. The option of using restorative justice in such a case, or community service, something that might bring home to a young person both more effectively and cheaply the gravity of their foolishness is to be withheld. This is the exact kind of pseudo tough policy making that has failed us for the past 17 years.

Much the same is true, although less objectionably, of the proposed mandatory life term for those committing a second "most serious sexual or violent offence". Clarke himself said this would most likely only apply to those who commit two "probably near-murderous attacks" and only affect around 20 people a year, but this is much the same that was said about Labour's indeterminate public protection regime, with subsequently over 6,000 receiving them, many languishing in prison past their minimum term unable to access the courses necessary to prove they're no longer a risk. One thing to welcome is the abolition of IPPs, although this is also tempered by the proposed replacement, the extended determinate sentence. This looks to be the equivalent of a life sentence in all but name, with the difference being that parole can be applied for once two-thirds of the term has been served. Once released they will then remain on licence for up to 8 years, or 10 for the most serious offenders. One suspects this will shortly become the standard sentence for almost all "serious" offenders, putting extra pressure on the prison estate and then in turn probation (receiving heavy cuts) for possibly little overall benefit.

Apart from how these massive changes to current practice have been left to be inserted into the legal aid, sentencing and punishment bill as amendments at the very last minute, with no time for consultation, the most troubling thing for Clarke must be the effect they'll have on his actual prison reform programme. To be able to have any chance of reducing re-offending, prisoners must have access to the work, training and therapy programmes he's been proposing. This is next to impossible to provide when some prisons are forced through overcrowding to lock up prisoners for 23 hours a day. Without bringing the population down to a sustainable level, the whole cause looks lost.

When the Sun then asks where Clarke goes from here, with their suggestion being that his time is up, it's difficult to disagree even if it's for an entirely different reason to the one they set out. Why continue as justice secretary when he's clearly lost the support he initially had for thinking somewhat radically? He should resign now and let those truly responsible take the blame when the attempt to "break the cycle" miserably fails.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011 

Playing the statistics game with Ken Clarke.

It's good to see that a week after Ken Clarke pronounced those responsible for the riots in August were a feral underclass unreformed by the prison system the Ministry of Justice has got round to publishing the preliminary data on which he based his assumption (PDF), only 10 days after certain media organisations were given an early version which they used to make similar claims.

Not in dispute is that Clarke was right to say that 75% of those over 18 who have been charged with an offence connected with the riots had received a previous caution or conviction. In fact, the actual figure is 77%, and the overall figure, including juveniles is 73% (page 5). Where it gets more interesting and informative is when you drill down further into the figures: unconnected with the riots entirely is that 28% of males aged 18-52, or more than 1 in 4, has at least a caution on their record. Also likely to be used as grist to the "feral underclass" mill is that 40% of the male juveniles charged with an offence following the disorder had committed at least one previous offence, compared with just 2% of the 10-17 male population as a whole.

So far then it does look as though the "criminal classes" were mainly those running amok. Other comparative data provided however blunts this somewhat: the 27% so far charged who didn't have a previous record is in fact a higher percentage than the 23% who found themselves up before the beak for the first time last year. Similarly, this data is meaningless without knowing the severity of the past crimes committed: 38.7% were summary and breach offences, while 23.5% were theft and handling stolen goods, the majority of which are likely to be shoplifting. The more serious burglary, robbery and violence against the person make up 4.7%, 3.6% and 6.0% respectively (Table 18, page 23). 9.6% of the 16,598 offences (1,586) were dealt with using cautions, suggesting those committing them were first or second time offenders. Crucially though, we don't yet know (and probably never will) just how long ago these previous offences were committed: the courts, as evidenced by Judge Chapple (PDF), usually ignore previous one-off minor brushes with the law when they took place over 5 years ago when passing sentence. That 28% of males between 18 and 52 have a record of some sort doesn't automatically make them a "criminal"; the same equally applies with the 77% charged so far.

We additionally have to take into account that a distinct percentage of the 1,715 who have so far passed through the courts charged in connection with the riots could be described as "low-hanging fruit": those already well known to the police and whom were identified by officers at the time and picked up afterwards, or later spotted on CCTV; those with records who left behind fingerprints; and those who have a "reputation", who suddenly came into possession of electrical goods and clothing at the same time as the disturbances and were duly grassed up. They were, as Paul and Reuben both point out, far easier to catch than those completely unknown to the police. The Ministry of Justice promises a further publication at the end of October covering wider "socio-economic and demographic characteristics" of those involved. Politicians and commentators alike would do well to wait at least until then before claiming any sort of vindication.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2011 

Reading the riots with Ken Clarke.

It was probably for the best that Ken Clarke did a disappearing act in the aftermath of the riots. Well, one suspects he was on holiday anyway, no doubt in some agreeable resort, cigar in one hand, pint of ale in the other while the feral underclass back home were looting far more proletarian booze and fags from whichever supermarket or off-licence they managed to smash their way into. His immediate analysis, which would have almost certainly been exactly the same as the one dispensed via the Guardian today, might not have gone down too well while his more excitable colleagues were calling for the rubber bullets to be brought out and the army to be deployed, or with the wider public.

His article does however fall squarely in with all the other pieces produced, both by politicians and hacks, who took the riots as proving their prior belief: while for Melanie Phillips they were the logical conclusion of a "a three-decade liberal experiment" (liberalism it seems began under Margaret Thatcher) and for Seumas Milne the result of greed at the top of society, dear old Ken instead concludes that it's not down to the parents or a sudden moral collapse as David Cameron has hypothesised, but instead the criminal justice punishment punishing but not rehabilitating.

To suggest the evidence for this is probably even slimmer than for almost any other explanation offered, baring the blaming of rap music or the whites becoming black (® David Starkey) would not be putting it too strongly. To begin with, Clarke's quoted figure of 75% of those over 18 who have so far been arrested having previous convictions is almost meaningless without the Ministry of Justice providing a detailed breakdown of exactly what those past offences were. We don't know whether they include simple cautions, or indeed whether the convictions resulted in custodial sentences, which would at least begin to go some way towards putting flesh on the bones of Clarke's argument. The MoJ website doesn't even mention Clarke's use of the statistic, which we will almost certainly be hearing time and again over the next few months. The sentencing remarks which have been released from the first batch of cases dealt with by crown courts also provide a muddied picture: all three of those dealt with by Judge Chapple in the inner London court had past criminal convictions (PDF), but only one could conceivably be described as being a member of the "criminal classes"; the other two had convictions from six and seven years ago respectively, while the former had more recently committed the heinous offence of travelling without a ticket on the railway.

A similar, if for now anecdotal pattern seems to be emerging across the country. Just as there were a good number of those who have spent their adult lives in and out of prison taking advantage of the situation, there were also a large number with either no previous record or with cautions from years before who found themselves caught up in the moment, or indeed persuaded by the apparent breakdown in law and order to help themselves. That beyond the victims' panel set-up by Nick Clegg there seems to be little interest as yet in collecting detailed information and evidence on how and why the riots started and spread beyond the death of Mark Duggan is both worrying and informative. Ten years ago the riots in Bradford and other northern towns led to the Ritchie and then Cantle reports; despite the disorder being far more widespread and serious this summer there is still no suggestion as yet that we're going to have anything approaching the in-depth analysis provided by those inquiries, or the informed recommendations they made as a result.

What it seems we will have is a continuation of policies the government was pursuing anyway, only speeded up and intensified slightly, regardless of their efficacy. In one way, this is a good thing: that we haven't seen an immediate rush to legislate and give additional, unnecessary powers to the police is a positive, and it's something that could well have happened had the authoritarian-leaning Labour party still been in power. It does also however more than suggest we have a coalition which doesn't change its mind when the facts change, or rather, doesn't even want to gather those facts in the first place. We should have expected as much on the economy, on which the government has built its entire foundation: even when admitting growth won't be as strong as forecast George Osborne refuses to consider any possibility that a change in course is needed, as to do so would be the equivalent of saying Labour and especially the hated Ed Balls have been right all along.

Of Clarke better should be expected. His plans for reforming the prison system had already been stymied by David Cameron, responding to the familiar cries from the right-wing press prior to the blowing up of the phone hacking scandal. Having originally wanted a reduction in the prison population, he had to settle on a stabilisation. That now looks even more optimistic than it did then: even if only half of those who have been arrested following the riots receive a prison sentence, the numbers behind bars will increase by at least 1,250. Rehabilitation of any variety is more difficult in heavily overcrowded jails where inmates spend most of the day banged up, rather than working as Clarke wants increasing numbers to: the resources weren't there before the cuts, and paying providers on results, which is still in the trial stage and completely unproven can't even begin to pick up the slack.

With the original anger at those involved in the rioting beginning to dissipate, now would have been the perfect time to look beyond the simplistic explanations so far offered for why, and Clarke could have taken a leading role, as Michael Heseltine did back in 1981 when he went to Liverpool following the Toxteth riots. Clarke doing little more than repeating the line the coalition has taken almost verbatim is a sad sight indeed.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011 

In which I admit to talking crap redux.

One of the not so great spectacles of the last few months has been seeing those who should know better and those who have no shame variously passing judgement on Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It's one of those cases where you can safely say that individuals on all sides share guilt: those in France, whether they be the philosopher buffoon Bernard-Henri Levy who sprang to DSK's offence in the way only a puffed up windbag can, or the others who assumed guilt based on DSK's only now reported serial womanising. Unfortunately, we can't even feel desperately sorry for Nafissatou Diallo: besides her lack of reliability as a witness based on dishonesty over her past, she was advised abysmally, as exemplified by the exclusive interviews she gave which only undermined her case yet further. In an ideal world, she would have had her day in court and a jury would have decided whose version of events to believe based on all the evidence. This is not an ideal world.

Deciding who's guilty and who isn't based on media reporting, or worse, on someone's past record, is daft. In the spirit of DSK then and in the second sort of mea culpa of the week, the acquittal of Learco Chindamo is welcome and refreshing news. Chindamo had not only been charged with the robbery of a man at a cashpoint, only four months after being released on parole, having served 14 years for the murder of the headteacher Philip Lawrence, it was also alleged he had intimidated the man by referring to the murder, something which suggested all those who had testified as to his changed, remorseful nature had been misled. OK, I didn't pass judgement based on his arrest, having believed such accounts, but all the same I felt the need to draw further attention to it before justice was done.

In a way, it does in fact show just how the justice system works when someone sentenced to life and released is then accused of a further crime: Chindamo has spent the entire time since he was arrested back in prison, and three previous trials collapsed for various reasons before he was finally acquitted yesterday, when it's unlikely the Crown Prosecution Service would have felt it was in the public interest for such expense and time to be spent trying a relatively minor crime had it involved those without such serious prior convictions. He will now have to go in front of the parole board again before he can be released, something unlikely to be a formality. As Frances Lawrence said, it can only be hoped that he has a happier, calmer and more productive future ahead of him.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011 

2031 here we come.

Much as this blog has always been against the tendency to split the whole population of a nation down the middle into two distinct groups in the past, I'm finding it hard to see such nuances when it comes to the sentences given to the "Facebook rioters". You have those who think that four years in prison for making events pages on a social networking website for riots which were never going to take place is ridiculously harsh, and then you have vindictive wankers who have obviously never done anything stupid in their entire lives who think it's perfectly acceptable.

The ostensible reason why Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan have received what seem such disproportionate terms of imprisonment is that inciting a riot, even if it doesn't take place or was never intended as anything other than a joke, is regarded as a more serious offence than the violent disorder which would result from it. This is underlined by the ranges set out by Judge Andrew Gilbart in his remarks before sentencing the first batch of those who pleaded guilty to taking part in the rioting in Manchester and Salford: he argues "that the context in which the offences of the night of 9th of August were committed takes them completely outside the usual context of criminality", and so feels likewise that the normal sentencing guidelines "are of much less weight in the context of the current case, and can properly be departed from". His starting point for "organisers of riots or commerical burglaries" after trial is 8 years upwards.

Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan then if anything seem to have got off relatively lightly, such is the climate that has descended. Judge Elgar Edwards, who sentenced both men, described their offences as happening at a time of "collective insanity", before going to err, describe what Blackshaw did as an "evil act". Perhaps though we shouldn't be so surprised: we've seen with the #twitterjoketrial that judges and the authorities don't take kindly to what seem to online dwellers like ourselves self-evidently mocking messages, regardless of the hints of menace they have in them. This was of a different scale, and added to the general level of unease which communities all around the country were going through, with the police turning up at Blackshaw's proposed location, yet it's both the lack of consistency between the terrible crimes you can commit and get 4 years for and the knowledge that there were plenty of other people out there on Facebook and Twitter spreading rumour and panic causing much the same fear and uncertainty without so much as being lectured for doing so that makes it stick in the craw so much.

Not that there's much consistency either in the sentences which have been handed down for those taking part in the actual looting. Gilbart gave Linda Mary Boyd, the woman who picked up a bag containing stolen alcohol, cigarettes and a mobile phone ten months suspended for two years. He judged her to be unlike the others he was sentencing, despite Boyd having a long record of petty offending. Such considerations were not given by Judge Robert Atherton, who sets out how he "respectfully agrees with the ranges" outlined by Gilbart, to Conrad McGrath, a 21-year-old student who previously seems to have had an entirely clean record. Arrested after being seen in a looted Tesco Express, Atherton sentenced him to 16 months for burglary (PDF). Even when taking everything into account, including McGrath's stupidity and his role in the wider unrest, it seems an overly harsh punishment for a first-time offender who didn't actually steal anything. A twelve month suspended sentence, which involved perhaps a curfew and also a form of restorative justice would surely both serve the stated parameters of "sending a message" while also acting as an effective punishment.

The Heresiarch asks:

That being the case, is it really fair to hand out exemplary sentences to rioters who were merely acting in accordance with human nature, who are not actually violent criminals? And is such sentencing policy good either for them or for society?

He goes on to suggest it is. I'm not so sure. While the public mood is undoubtedly in favour of the harsh penalties being handed down, and some of those involved truly are deserving of what they have coming their way, our prisons are not exactly renowned for their work in reducing recidivism, while the current overcrowding is hardly going to improve the conditions for those first time offenders finding themselves in a circle of hell as a result of a few hours of madness. It's also dubious that the fear of such punishments can ever overcome the peer pressure of the mob when you're caught up in it.

Moreover, all the signs are that last week's events are another one-off which we'll end up looking back at in a similar way to the race riots 10 years ago and the disturbances in the 80s: memories fade quickly, while the young often have only the most superficial knowledge of events during their early childhood. It's safe to bet that plenty of those under 21 had very little to no knowledge whatsoever of the Toxteth, Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots of the 80s. Exemplary sentences only stay that way as long as they can be recalled. Come the 2031 riots, those on all sides will doubtless make the same arguments all over again.

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