Sunday, April 01, 2007

House Full

This weekend the prisons really are full, with several hundred people detained in police cells, and a handful in Magistrates' Court cells, which are even less suitable for the purpose than the police ones, being furnished with bare wooden benches, and having no toilet facilities, the latter meaning that the security officers have to unlock and escort the prisoner every time that he needs to relieve himself. Since they are on overtime, I don't suppose that the officers mind too much though.
If my colleagues and I had made different bail decisions on Friday the figures could have been higher by two or lower by one, depending which way we had gone. We were a seasoned bench with over sixty years' experience between us, and we made three bail decisions in the afternoon. The first was a man of about forty, a regular customer, who had breached his community order last Autumn and hadn't been seen since. He has mental health issues as well as drink and drug habits, and is a serial, if incompetent, shoplifter. We were asked to remand him in custody and to order fresh pre-sentence reports. One colleague wanted to lock him up on the justifiable basis that he had shown himself unwilling to obey a court order, but the final decision was to bail him with a tag to keep him indoors for twelve hours a day. The second was a desperate-looking woman who had failed to turn up for her Probation interview for a pre-sentence report, and whose lifestyle was predictably chaotic. We re-bailed her for three weeks. The third was a man, on bail for a domestic violence offence, who had breached his bail conditions not to go to the road in which the victim, his ex-partner, lives, and not to contact her in any way. He had turned up hammering on her door and shouting incoherently, his diction being impaired by the alcohol and cocaine that he had taken. His solicitor made a plea for us to bail him again, saying that it was only the drink and drugs that had made him break the order, and that he hadn't actually gone inside the house. That did not impress us one bit, and we felt that our priority was to protect the victim, so we remanded him to the Scrubs. For low-level offending where there is no real risk to the public it makes sense to bail people wherever possible, but where violence, either real or potential, is involved the only proper course is a remand in custody, irrespective of the state of the prisons.

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