Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Path to Prison

So many people believe that criminal justice operates in a quite simple way. Bad people who do bad things are nicked, paraded before a Court, and then hauled off to prison. Or, if you are a Daily Mail reader, you think they receive a cup of tea from the desk sergeant and a taxi home, accompanied with a letter of apology for the inconvenience to your criminal career.

Either way, the reality is far more complicated. I visualise this as a matter of "filters", various gates that have to be passed through before prison is reached and at every turn there is a potential for a different outcome.

Whether one gets arrested for whatever misfeasance is alleged is in the discretion of the copper in front of you. How he perceives you and your offence is vitally important. A group of Black youths drinking on a street corner receives more attention than a group of Etonians swaying and singing down the pavement. Same offences, different perceptions...

Assuming you are arrested, the charge is another moveable feast. What evidence is available to support various charges is one factor. The sympathy, empathy or plain indifference of those in the police station all has an influence. The same applies for bail and its terms and conditions.

The Crown Prosecution Service then pitches in with its view of the situation. Charges may be dropped, lesser or greater ones substituted. Pretending that popular panics or political imperatives and personal have no effect at this stage is just naive.

Arriving at the Court, the competence of your Defence, the malevolence of the Prosecuting and the quality of sleep the Judge has had all play their part. The 12 members of the Jury all bring their own life experience and world view to the proceedings.

Whether you are young or old, black or white, male or female, booted and suited or wearing your best tracksuit... All of these are factors which affect how you are perceived and the sentence you finally get burdened with.

At the end of the day, you may end up in prison. You may not. The road to incarceration is littered with diversions and decisions, many irrelevant to your actual crime. These exercises in discretion warp the whole process of criminal justice and make what should be a stable entity a rather shaky, uncertain structure.

The exercise of discretion at various points is illustrated most strongly when crimes involve the powerful or those with media backing. Offenders who are supported by the Daily Mail may be less likely to receive strong sentences, for example, or are even released from Life sentences early.

When those who fiddle their benefits fall under the official gaze, they are arrested and interviewed under caution. They are subjected to TV adverts condemning their actions. Conversely, an MP who knowingly claims for non-existent mortgage payments is invited for a comfy chat with a bureaucrat and invited to apologise and write a cheque. Tax evaders are not worthy of a TV campaign.

A private citizen who, in front of media cameras, is seen to assault another can expect to be instantly arrested. A police officer who does so is confined to his desk and subject to a long investigation before there is any sign of handcuffs being produced.

Criminal justice can be a reflection of the best of a society, a reflection of its highest values. Conversely, the criminal justice system can hold a mirror up to illustrate the fractured, disinterested and corrupted nature of the polity.

Whichever holds true, the path to prison is never a straightforward, impersonal, one. More significantly, it implies that prisoners need not be the worst of criminals.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe you could focus some of your writing on helping people - the average Jo/Joe - to understand what we can do to change the status quo. Here's why - I was burgaled in the summer: Family house - 2 adults 2 small children - came down to find the backdoor jammed open and laptop, phone, bag etc... missing. I was upset but I thought - well it was just a burglary, my children are fine and really - that's part of life - some poor kid who has his values mixed up found we were an easy target -nothing personal - but then the burglar logged onto my facebook account and left nasty messages posted under my ID - which suddenly made the whole thing personal and a bit spooky for your average housewife. I was genuinely shaken by it and by the media attention it received and the ridiculously mean comments from people about how stupid I was to leave a PC with saved usernames and passwords in my own house - under lock and key. Despite all of this - I do not think that a term in prison is what the young men who were caught and prosecuted needed. But by calling the police when we realised we had been burgaled, we set a process in motion that was unstoppable. We didn't have to appear in court and we did not press charges - and those young men are now in prison. So Ben - the energy and the interest you have stimulated - can you direct it somewhere so it can help? Apologies if you have covered this in a previous post. I've missed a few.