Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Iain Gray - tougher than you think

Labour's Scottish leader, Iain Gray, wants to institute a policy that means automatic imprisonment for carrying a knife. Or, in Iain's words:
Our proposal for a minimum sentence for knife criminals is the right way to send a clear message. That message is – carry and knife and go to jail.

I'm sure that Iain and the rest of the Labour party in Scotland will be delighted to know that they're being even tougher than Downes Elementary School in Newark, Delaware, USA where a six year old boy has been told he should serve a 45 day sentence in a remand school for taking his favourite camping cutlery to school to eat his lunch with. I can imagine the puffed chest as Labour's Judge Dredd says "45 days in a remand school? No, laddie, 45 weeks in the big hoose!" If you were a Labour party member would you be happy to have this guff associated with your name?

Shall we take the 14 or 15 year-old boy who carries a knife because his mates do and send him to prison rather than showing him that he doesn't need to? What about a 17 year old who carries a knife because he really needs it for protection - should we just jail him and start him on a criminal career rather than letting him let go of his fear? What about a 21 year old who has been a bit wild, fighting in the street, getting a bit out of hand, carrying a blade to make himself feel harder, bigger, more important? Do we chuck him inside with violent offenders or should we maybe think about ways to address his anger and frustration and let him release that and become a valuable member of society? Iain Gray would send them to jail - enormous cost to the taxpayer, enormous damage to them, possibly turning them to a life of crime when they might (might) have a chance of making a better life for themselves.

Does Labour seriously think that a police officer on patrol doesn't want to think about what they are doing? Process them and send them down! I suspect that a majority of police officers are fully aware of the implications for a young life of an arrest, of a criminal record. I suspect that a lot of police officers will look at the situations that come in front of them every day and always consider the effects of their actions - some people won't be arrested who could be, sometimes it might be thought better to take the teenager home or to have a wee chat with them where they are, some people might get away with minor crimes, but society might be better off. Would automatons make better police officers than the ones we have?

Similarly, does anyone really think that mandatory sentences make our courts better? The sheriffs and judges who sit in our courts - does anyone think that they sit there wishing that someone had told them exactly what sentence each of those convicted in front of them should get? These legal bods who have spent years in the great theatre of court to supplement their study of law to become a mere subsidiary of pornography politics - I've got a harder penal policy than you have? Perhaps we should trust them to do their jobs, to look at what's in front of them, to decide what the legal position is and to temper that with common sense and human decency. Perhaps we should look at our penal policy on a regular basis and ask what is working rather than what will harvest a few votes.

Let's think about a teenager; out knocking around, doing whatever legal things teenagers are wont to do, perhaps in the company of a love interest. Let's say that, for whatever reason - being in the wrong place, looking funny, or just unfortunate - he is set upon by another person or more than one person and, in addition to the physical injuries he sustains, he is humiliated. In his shame and burning embarrassment he goes home and grabs a big carving knife from the kitchen and sets out in the red mist to avenge himself. The probability being that, if he does not come upon his assailants soon, he will run out of steam, think better of his rage and return the knife to the kitchen. If he makes contact while raging the tale may be different in all kinds of ways, but bear with me.

Let's introduce a police patrol. Police officers encounter the youth while he is in a rage and engage him. It becomes apparent that he has a knife. As things stand the officers can talk to him, give him time to calm down, give him time to think about what he is doing, give him the benefit of their experience, set him off on a different path, take the knife from him if they think it necessary, perhaps give him a lift home so he's safe and out of trouble, exercise their duty of care to him as well as to the other members of this society, make life a little better all round. They'd also be able to think that he was a danger to society and to take him into custody where he could calm down and be released later, be examined for mental illness if thought necessary, have kith or kin called to take care of him, or perhaps other avenues. It's police officers acting as members of, and servants of, society - a role I think most of them perform regularly and well.

If the police saw fit to send a report to the Procurator Fiscal similar decisions take place, is it in the public interest to prosecute or to take one of the other routes open to the Fisc? Then into court and the Sheriff or Judge will sit through a trial and, if and on conviction, will consider how to dispose of the case - admonition because that is what will ensure that the lad will think twice in the future; community service because he needs to learn a harder lesson; prison because a message needs to get through; or another disposal? How many cases come before the people on the bench and how much do they pack into their gullet? How often do they think that they would like to send someone to prison but it would serve no purpose (alternatively, how often do they think that their powers to imprison do not go far enough?) What does someone presiding over a sentence have to consider? While I'm as sure as every taxi-driver that I could do a better job (I used to drive a taxi), I'm really quite glad that it's not me there - it's a fair responsibility.

Now take Labour's position - the police would find the knife and have no choice, they would have to process him for the Proc Fisc. The PF would have no choice, they would have to prosecute. Providing there was evidence that a knife was present, the sheriff or judge would have no choice, the kid would have to go to jail. Who benefits? How is that an improvement? From the time the police found the knife there was no other outcome - is that not just a wee bit scary? Where are all the checks and balances that you and I rely on to make sure that we are not unjustly or unproductively prosecuted and convicted? Remove them from the daft laddie with the knife and you've removed them from us.

Take that story back a bit and let's introduce the police patrol at a later point - the young lad is on his way home having realised that he's being a fool, having thought it through, and having thought that a night in his bed is just about top-notch just now. The police spot the knife and pull him over - the same choices are currently available, and this laddie will most likely go home with a wee lesson and a bit of respect for the polis who said "think about it first", he'll wake up still humiliated but not in prison. In Labour's world, though, the guy could be opening his door and stepping back inside when the police catch him - from there he's going to jail.

Let's make a deal, Iain, let's let the police decide how to handle crime prevention and detection and how to keep the peace, they're trained for it. Let's let the PF and the courts prosecute, convict and sentence, and let's spend our time working out how to make this a better country instead of regimenting it. If someone has a knife let's ask why, let's put the violent people in jail and give the daft laddies a second chance. Let's not condemn people for acting in the heat of the moment when they might still have the chance to think again.

Justice may have to be blind but it doesn't have to be stupid.


Anonymous said...

Good piece Calum, but surely by now everyone must know that labour's "policies" are not logical.
The slogan sounds like an exhortation to carry a knife, with the bit about the jail tacked on (which the neds will ignore anyway).

Anonymous said...

Here's another one for you my mother who had dementia wandered off with knife that was removed by police .45 days respite care I suppose.

Stuart Winton said...

Calum, interesting that you'd entertain the possibility that a 'humiliated' teenager in a rage, with a knife and bent on revenge is merely 'given a lift home' by police to keep him safe.

On balance I think I'd prefer the Iain Gray approach, crude as it is!

And might not the effect of the policy be to deter such things ever happening in the first place?

I mean, the creeping softly-softly approach that you advocate hasn't exactly been a rip-roaring success?

Perhaps it's caused the problem rather than offering a solution?

Anonymous said...

Stuart Winton: Could you say that the Michael Howard Prison Works system is effective...? I don't think so. It never has; it never will.

Unless.... of course you apply the law in the way that the Taliban or the religious police of Saudi Arabia, for example, do.

Now that works, because everyone... and I mean everyone, is scared stiff all the time to do anything at all...

Of cousre that's not the kind of Scotland I want. You may be different.

Stuart Winton said...

Tris, I'm certainly neither a fan of the Taleban/Saudi Arabian sharia law nor Michael Howard, but I'm certainly a bit more sympathetic to the less liberal approach to law and order as compared to when I was a teenager, thus to that extent I've went the opposite way to Calum - although I think my direction of travel is the more typical ;0)

But you make a valid point in that an element of deterrence is necessary for a well-functioning criminal justice system, but from where I'm standing this has gradually been jetissoned for a more welfare/rights-based approach, which in my opinion demonstrably doesn't work, although I'm sure the likes of yourself and Calum take the opposite view.

But, for example, young people respect/fear the police less these days and instead laugh at/hate them.

And to that extent they're more likely to embark on a life of crime and thus end up in prison, and by that time it's difficult to turn things round.

Anonymous said...

Och Stuart you make perfectly fair comments there. In some ways laxness is a problem. But you won't get young people to like or turst the police by making them more harsh.

Unless we cover the country with prisons and raise income tax to pay for the upkeep (something I note that Iain Gray's party did not want to do when they had power for 8 years) that solution won't work.

My answer would cost a lot of money too of course. It would involve building sports facilities that the young and poor can have access to; it would involve setting up leagues and getting lads playing football, or basketball and all manner of games; it would involve adults getting off their backsides, out of the pub and doing some volutary work; it would involve the police getting out of their cars and treating people like human beings and it would involve the leader of the opposition not oiffering up his fists to the First Minister and FMQs...

Fat chance any of it...

redcliffe62 said...

i like the idea that there is a curfew on carrying non work or ceremonial knives, say from 7pm to 7am.
i am not sure i would want everyone jailed, but i would like the police to have the option and unless there was a good reason why he was carrying it i would like them to take action.
i am not saying mandatory sentences on first offence, but a 2nd offence after the last chance warning i agree should be mandatory.

that last chance warning needs to be a disciplinary process. after that they can nmamake their own choice.

does that make me less compassionate? no. it means i believe in second chances but enough is enough.