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Saturday, July 03, 2010

Jerry Hayes: Kenneth Clarke's prison policy

Jerry Hayes: Kenneth Clarke's prison policy

No doubt Michael Howard would showcase Nelson Mandela as living proof that prison works. Clarke knows better;it doesn’t.

No doubt Michael Howard would showcase Nelson Mandela as living proof that prison works. But Ken Clarke knows better; it doesn’t. For years judges and prison reformers have expressed horror at the futility of sending so many people to prison who have no place there; drug addicts, the mentally unwell, the socially inadequate ineducable. They offend, do their time, they come out, they offend again. This hopeless cycle is almost handed down genetically through generations of petty criminality. And who suffers the most? Well, the rest of us, who have our houses burgled, our children mugged and our cars broken into, so that some hopeless drug addict can feed his addiction. Thus society has come up with the brilliant solution of sending them to prison, where drugs are as freely available as Simon Hughes’s opinions. It’s like sending Peter Mandelson to Feltham Remand Centre to encourage a love of women.

Of course, lock away dangerous offenders, the rapists, the armed robbers, the paedophiles; society has to be protected. But we are best protected by weaning the druggies off their addiction and trying to equip them for being useful members of society, where they won’t have to resort to acquisitive crime. Now, for some members of the Neanderthal wing of the Tory party, this is nothing more than a soft option dreamed up by do-gooding pinkos. Actually it’s not. For many, being weaned off their addiction is almost impossibly hard. I have defended some who have specifically requested a prison sentence than go on a programme of treatment. For these people, and there are many, prison is the soft option.

But what I find so deeply disturbing is the appalling way we treat our children. We don’t send them to work in dark satanic mills, we don’t send them up chimneys, we don’t indenture them in to prostitution. But we make them stand trial for criminal offences in the Crown Court. I’m not talking about fifteen year old thugs who would, and do, slit your throat for a mobile phone. Nor the packs of snarling, feral, youths who terrorise our housing estates. Nor the drugs gangs, who murder and maim for their territory and “Respect”. These are the new outlaws; beyond compassion, beyond conscience and devoid of the basic decencies which define our humanity. It is the amorality towards the fate of their fellows that is so shocking. For them, reform or be cast into eternal damnation.

But why do we have to trial children as young as ten on trial? Of course, there are certain cases that are so repugnant and shocking, that justice demands that trials be open and in the Crown Court. But for the vast majority, it is an outrage. For the last few weeks I have been defending a little boy of twelve for raping his six year old sister. Quite rightly, he was acquitted. He was a boy who had never been in trouble before. He sat there, glassy eyed and utterly bewildered as to what was happening to him. For every thirty minutes of evidence we had a fifteen minute break. The court was run on the basis of a school day. The judge was the personification of compassion and fairness, but this must have been an unfathomable ordeal for this little boy, almost a medieval torture. Heaven knows what scars he will bear. The Crown Court was not the place for him, nor for those two ten year olds convicted of attempted rape a few weeks beforehand. For the first time in living memory we have a government that actually thinks about issues along non partisan lines. They are tearing up the old Victorian wisdoms of our prisons. They are abandoning the wickedness of detaining the children of asylum seekers. Now is the time for them to rethink the way we deal with very young children accused of crimes.

1 comment:

James Higham said...

It’s like sending Peter Mandelson to Feltham Remand Centre to encourage a love of women.

Now that sounds an excellent idea.