Thursday, September 11, 2014

Tough Stuff

Today, among a list of some twenty cases in a remand court, I had the job of telling a man that he was going to prison for sixteen weeks. I can't say too much about the case, but it was obvious from the pre-sentence report and the man's previous convictions that we had to face up to the unpleasant decision to send him inside.

His solicitor made a strong case to either suspend the sentence or to impose a community penalty, but when we went outside to make our final decision we agreed that we could not avoid custody and neither could we sensibly suspend it, as he had previously breached a suspended sentence.

We called out the clerk, ran the decision past her to make sure that we had got the law right, then after a call had been made to the cells to get a couple of officers to our courtroom we went back in and sat down. I delivered the bad news (to which he showed no surprise) crisply, and gave the legal reasons for our decision. He went with the officers without a word, while his partner sobbed her eyes out in the gallery. Our usher quietly passed in one of the boxes of tissues that we keep handy for these occasions, then that was it.

He is in Wormwood Scrubs as I write this, in the first-night cells. Most people find the admission to prison horrible, but our man has seen it before so may cope better. His partner will be alone in bed in their cramped flat.

Will it stop him reoffending? I have no idea.


  1. Obviously without knowing the circumstances of the offence and his previous it's impossible to answer the question about reoffending. In my own experience - as a former prisoner - the likely answer is probably no, particularly if, as the above post seems to suggest, he has previously been inside, thus losing any real deterrent value.

    In general, short sentences are very likely to be a complete waste of time and taxpayers' money. Of the 16 weeks, he will only serve 8, less any time on HDC (assuming he is suitable and eligible). So where are we then, 5 or 6 weeks in jail?

    The first week or so will be spent on induction, then it will be perhaps 4 weeks of bang-up with no work allocated or chance to enrol for education. I calculate that this will cost the taxpayer £646.15 per week (based on the fact that the Scrubs is a B-cat local and the average cost per year per prisoner is £33,600). I can guarantee that if the offence was alcohol or drugs related there will not even be time for a referral to see a treatment provider, let alone a meeting with anyone from the Offender Management Unit. This truly is expensive human warehousing which is very unlikely to achieve anything positive, for the offender or for society.

    1. On a tour of the local prison, I asked the officers their view on such short sentences. They largely agreed with what you say - but they made an important caveat - when the person is generally a problem for society a sentence can offer respite for the neighbourhood even if only for a short time.

      I also think it is a useful indicator to any future sentencer that you have already exhausted the alternatives and they need consider the toughest sanctions they have too...

    2. Alex Cavendish's comment might support the proposition that when all else has been tried and a custodial sentence is appropriate, it should be for significantly longer (in time actually served) than is now the case. In A Land Fit For Criminals, the author, a probation officer, argues that prison would have a deterrent effect to established criminals if the time inside was long enough.

    3. I think that most prisoners (and ex-prisoners) would agree that there will always be certain individuals who are a danger to society and when they commit serious offences richly deserve to spend a long stretch in prison. I suppose we all tend to apply the 'next door neighbour test': if this person moved in next to me and my family how would I feel. I've met plenty of fellow cons that I would not like to live anywhere near!

      My problem is with short sentences for people who may be local nuisances or have irritating anti-social habits, but who are not dangerous or violent. A fair number of these individuals have long-standing addictions, mental health problems or personality disorders. Unless these underlying factors are addressed (whether inside prison or out in the community) then the offending behaviour is almost certain to continue in some form or other. QED, imprisonment failed to rehabilitate or even deter.

      Short prison sentences simply cannot deal with these issues and they are an enormously expensive way of getting the neighbourhood pest or petty shoplifter off the streets for a few weeks. As a taxpayer, I despair when I read of prolific, though non-violent, offenders being sent down for thieving items of low value or possession of drugs for personal use or for persistently feeding the pigeons. That's my money being wasted when these numpties are being banged-up in a B-cat local at a pro-rata cost of £33,600 per year.

  2. Dear Bystander Team,

    I wish to start by congratulating the JP concerned for doing his/her duty.

    I further acknowledge that making the decision made will provoke a response in one's own emotions and you are to be commended for being frank, through your blog on a matter of interest.

    I am concerned at the emotive language: tough, unpleasant, could not avoid, bad news, most...find admission to prison horrible.

    Quite properly, you have not given background details of a real case. But really?

    A habitual criminal, who, even if one feels sorry for those being imprisoned for the first time, had been behind the door before. Suspended sentence, but, hey, bit to worry, maybe my brief can sort it out. Sobbing spouse? Well, bit hard on her on the day but won't be away for long and she'll stand by me. Just can't change my ways.

    Not a thought, in your piece at least, about who was affected by the crime.

    Will it stop him reoffending? Not whilst he's inside. And, no, let's not have any concern that he will be mixing with the wrong sort.

    He's had plenty of chances and his response is to be a chancer. I ask you to consider whether a longer sentence, a good while ago, might have been better for the defendant and all the other unfortunates (which might include people who have to live in areas few would choose to live in) affected by his chosen lifestyle.


  3. Err why is it an unpleasant decision. Its your job to hand down these decisions.
    Sounds like he deserved some porridge....... If you don't like the time don't do the crime...

    No sympathy whatsoever given his breach of a suspended sentence and his previous convictions

    1. Most people who have done this will say it is unpleasant. Anyone who derives pleasure from sentencing someone to jail has no place in the magistracy.

    2. it may be splitting hairs but there is difference between unpleasant and an unpleasant decision.which was what was in the orginal post.

      I don't think decisions to send people to prison are unpleasant, if it merits it eg. If someone has bashed and old lady over the head and stolen her handbag, I don't think the decision to send the offender to prison is unpleasant in the slightest. in fact I would sentence with a considerable amount of pleasure.

    3. and would you believe it. I do hope if one the magistrates has to sentence this guy if he is caught, I hope he will do his duty and smile whist doling out a suitably stiff sentence, if not ,send it up to the Crown Court for an even stiffer one...

  4. Funny how the poor old motorist gets no sympathy at all, yet habitual criminals tug at the magistrates heart strings.

    1. Most magistrates are motorists too.

  5. Members of the Bystandar Team have commented on this before and I can see the logic in their position. It's not that they have sympathy for criminals, it's that the decision to deprive any human being of their liberty is a momentous one that should not be taken lightly.

    I agree with the comment above - someone who derives pleasure from sentencing should reconsider their position as a magistrate.

  6. The very last paragraph is intriguing. How can JPs mould the (admittedly small) discretionary component of their service/actions to the best interests of the public, when, unlike doctors, they never have feedback on the outcomes of their decisions, for good or ill ?

  7. Is it time to consider controlled corporal punishment?

    This person would be sentenced to, say, one stroke of a cane. I would be preceded and followed by a medical examination. Prison would remain an option.

    He could go home the same day, lessening the impact on his family.
    He could keep his job, if he has one, making life easier for his employer, and earning.
    It would cost vastly less and might actually deter him from reoffending.
    Prisons would be much less crowded, leading to better education and rehabilitation.


    1. If you have a strong stomach, google for more details of Singapore's corporal punishment. The medical consequences can be surprisingly serious and long lasting.

  8. "Will it stop him reoffending?"

    As the first anon pointed out, there's a thing called incapacitance. While he's inside his neighbours (or whoever his victims are) get a break. As Machiii points out, this implies longer rather than shorter sentences.

    Still, if Bystander was the beak who gave him sixteen weeks, he must have richly deserved it - and more, doubled then redoubled.


Posts are pre-moderated. Please bear with us if this takes a little time, but the number of bores and obsessives was getting out of hand, as were the fake comments advertising rubbish.