Category Archives: Law and Order

Ken Clarke to “choose words more carfelly” following rape row

Ken Clarke’s future as Justice Secretary hangs in the balance following comments he made yesterday on BBC Radio 5 Live about rape.

The Justice Secretary was appearing on the Wednesday morning slot with Victoria Derbyshire where he was due to outline Government proposals to increase the sentence reduction for an early guilty plea from 33% to 50%.

The sentence reduction would mean that the most serious criminals – including rapists – could see their sentences reduced by 50% if they enter an early guilty plea. It is argued that early guilty pleas can spare victims of serious crime the ordeal of re-living their experience through a long court process. Although quite how this absolves the perpetrator of his or her maximum punishment is hard to draw? Whether a perpetrator of a serious violent crime such as rape enters an early guilty plea should be inconsequential – they should receive a sentence which fits the crime in all circumstances.

The real motivation behind Ken Clarke’s suggestions relate to what many backbench Tories call his ‘softer’ approach to our criminal justice system. Including the re-evaluation of sentencing, Clarke promised in a speech made in July 2010  that there would be a “rehabilitation revolution” in light of Ministry of Justice findings that reoffending rates are higher after shorter jail terms. Interestingly, the same findings recommended that longer prison sentences of 2 to 4 years are more effective than terms of under 12 months.

The move towards rehabilitation instead of the punitive ‘prison works’ Tory approach to crime we are used to is commendable and has garnered much support for Clarke from Lib Dems. But with cuts being made to every Government Department, the impetus behind any new legislation is saving money. Increasing the sentence reduction for early guilty please will save police and court time whilst reducing numbers in prison, and therefore reduce costs. But it is clear that Clarke should have avoided applying this new approach to the most serious violent offenders including rapists.

As for the comments made yesterday, it is clear they were completely shameful and are far less than one would expect from a Cabinet Minister in charge of overseeing our Criminal Justice System. Here is just a snippet of some of the worst moments from yesterdays interview between Clarke and Derbyshire (interestingly Derbyshire doesn’t pick-up on Clarke’s first questionable comment regarding “serious rape” and neither does Clarke seem to recognise he may have just made a mistake as he then goes on to talk of “rape in the ordinary sense”);

Clarke: Serious rape, I don’t think many judges give five years for a forcible rape, the tariff is longer than that. And a serious rape where, you know, violence and an unwilling woman, the tariff’s much longer than that.

‘Clarke: assuming you and I are talking about rape in the ordinary conversational sense.

Derbyshire: Rape is rape, with respect.’

Clarke: No it’s not

Clarke:Date rape can be as serious as the worst rapes.

Clarke:Except the kind of rape we’ve just heard about

Clarke:if they got that sentence depending on what the rape was.

Clarke’s comments are shameful. Throughout the interview it is clear that his sees the crime of rape as multifaceted. He alludes to there being different forms of rape in different circumstances which warrant different levels of punishment. This is completely absurd. Rape is rape, and the punishment for the crime must be universal.

It is quite clear from yesterdays comment that Ken Clarke has seriously jeopardised his position as  Justice Secretary. David Cameron has avoided sacking the Minister with the PM’s spokesman saying it was “clearly regrettable” if offence was caused by Clarke’s comments.

Labour almost immediately capitalised on the rape row and called for Clarke’s resignation during PMQs.

Clarke has since vowed to “choose my words more carefully” and has argued he was merely outlining the “long-standing factual situation” that sentences can differ depending upon the varying circumstances of particular rape cases.

If he was outlining what the current situation is then he has failed to address a clear injustice. That the Criminal Justice System subconsciously applies a sliding-scale of punishment for rape. This oversight on Clarke’s part, and his failure to address it in forthcoming legislative proposals, should be enough for the Justice Secretary to be sacked. Taking into account his comments yesterday it is shocking he still remains in his post today.

Ken Clarke will be appearing on tonight’s Question Time, BBC1 10:35, broadcast from Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

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One year on from G20, police behaviour still questioned

A large number of protestors on that day behaved badly, the smashing up of a branch of RBS is one notable reminder. What we have to remember is that the police on the front line that day are individuals who will react to aggression in the same way as the protestors did on that day, and in the same way that most people would – namely to meet aggression with aggression. The bigger picture at stake here,……

beyond the focus on minor individual cases, is the wider role of the police and how their power should be used and the way they should behave. We need an impartial monitor of individual, and systemic, police behaviour on the day that events happen. One suggestion is the introduction of ‘citizen observers’, independently vetted individuals used to monitor police, and citizen, behaviour on the day of events such as mass protests as well as within the day to day events of police stations. Police officers have powers over and above individual citizens, including the right to use violence, and this power must be visibly held to account.

Many of the protestors at the G20 protests last year were antagonists (of the non-violent kind) and are now causing a massive fuss by claiming that any police officer wielding a truncheon that day was guilty of police brutality. Take for example, the anarchist group Space Hijackers who attended the G20 protests dressed as police officers. They were arrested for this and are now suing the Met for wrongful arrest. Unfortunately, it is groups such as Space Hijackers who divert attention away from the wider issue at stake –police power and behaviour – and cause attention to fall on one insignificant event in which they set out to antagonise police and in which they acted illegally. You surely can’t be allowed to impersonate a police officer on a day where the police would play such an important, and visible, role. Oh, and too me, the photo below of the Space Hijackers in action shows they did a good job of impersonating police officers contrary to reports of innocent ‘theatrical activists’. If the Space Hijackers, or any other group, were impersonating police in order to carry out some sort of meaningful operation then so be it since such impersonation would be beneficial to its success. But in the case of a bunch of jokers like the Space Hijackers, they do it for no good reason other than to mock the police and do nothing to vindicate individuals such as Blair Peach or Ian Tomlinson – two individuals who arguably lost their lives because of excessive police power and poor police behaviour.

The Police and Government have taken allegations of police brutality at the G20 seriously and this acknowledgement will lead to the Association of Chief Police Officers releasing a ‘manual’ for policing protests. Furthermore, Home Office ministers are due to release a ‘code of practice’ for the police after the election. Besides recommended codes of practice or instructions in manuals, one suggestion which should be included as a cornerstone for future policing of protests is the introduction of ‘citizen observers’. These observers could form part of the planning, and on the day policing, of such protests to monitor possible breaches in police, and protestor, behaviour, acting as an impartial voice/witness to any wrongdoing. The ‘citizen observers’ could also be used beyond large-scale policing events such as protests, and be present in police stations to monitor police behaviour there also.

The idea of ‘citizens observers’ should be introduced to deter over aggression of police, and other security officials, who it seems have become delusional about their powers, and permitted levels of aggression, used when dealing with the public. Indeed, this is an issue which in particular affects the police but also doorman/bouncers who act as Britain’s quasi police enforcers every Friday and Saturday night.

The G20 protests were policed in a negative and wholly unnecessary way. It was unfortunate that the British media substantially increased the tension in the lead up to the protests with inflammatory headlines such as ‘We’re braced for wave of disorder’ warning of planned widespread violence. This certainly impacted on the judgement of police officers on the day who, in response to a very small minority of violent protestors, were largely over-aggressive towards the majority of peaceful protestors. Tactics such as ‘kettling’ – the cordoning off of large groups of protestors for sustained periods – were a response to small incidences of violence and further inflamed present tensions. What we should be focussed on is ways to monitor police power and behaviour. Introducing ‘citizen observers’, within a wider ‘community’ approach towards policing, would bridge the present widening gap between the police and the public, and could provide independent observation of citizens and police when things go wrong.

First published March 27th 2010

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Rehabilitation must prevail over retribution

As horrible as the murder of James Bulger was in 1993.The need to uphold the anonymity of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson must be the priority of our Criminal Justice System if we are to avoid a descent into a MediEvil witch hunt ending in one, or both, of the murderers death. What this case does show is that a far more effective form of justice and punishment is rehabilitation, not retribution.

Jon Venable and Robert Thompson committed an awful crime which everyone agrees warranted the immediate involvement of state services in these two disturbed young boys lives. But, as result of the political establishment buckling under typical tabloid sensationalism – and as a result of an outdated justice system – Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were tried in an adult court at the age of ten.

If we truly want to live in a liberal and free society then we must advocate the rehabilitation of criminals over retribution in every case. On the issue of child criminals; the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to at least 12, if not raised in line with European countries such as Italy and Spain to the age of 14 or 16 respectively. I find it worrying that the tabloid press would have you believe that the vast majority of British people believe child murderers should be imprisoned for life. If the majority of British people do think that – and I hope we don’t – then what is being advocated is total retribution for serious crimes such as murder. In effect, this equates to relinquishing an individual of their liberty for life through life imprisonment without parole, or ultimately death. I hope we live in a society where this view is not the norm. I hope capital punishment will never be brought back. We have surely moved on from the days of hangings. Furthermore, we should never put ourselves in a position where the state can legitimately murder its own citizens.

When I talk of rehabilitation, I am not advocating that murderers should avoid imprisonment. Of course an individual who is a danger to society should be imprisoned. But the aim of that imprisonment should be entirely devoted to the rehabilitation of that individual so the state can be certain he/she no longer poises a risk to wider society upon release. At the moment, our criminal justice system does not do this. Proper rehabilitation is a long term process that stretches beyond the term of imprisonment served by the individual. It stretches to long term assistance in finding employment, accessing health services, and undertaking educational courses. It should not only stretch to the supervision by a probation officer to check on the individuals behaviour – although of course this should be one role of the probation services.

Back to Venables and Thompson, I watch in amazement at the archive footage shown on TV of two blue police vans escorting Venables and Thompson, flanked by an angry baiting crowd along the road, and one individual attempting to attack the vans before he is restrained by police. These absurd pictures seem to contradict the same tabloidesque sensationalism meted against depictions of extreme Islam and the apparent impending implementation of Sharia Law. It is argued by the tabloids that Sharia Law is a barbaric and un-balanced form of justice that is ‘spreading’ throughout our country. Yet, the same western media that takes the moral high ground against examples of Sharia law abroad such as the public stoning of  Du’a Khalil Aswad(a 17 year old Iraqi Kurd), then seems to tow the line of the baying mob depicted in the footage mentioned above. What are we advocating? Apart from a major contradiction, recent news coverage would have one believe that what we are advocating is some form of total retribution for Jon Venables and Robert Thompson such as life imprisonment or even execution.

The most sensible comments to come out of the current news coverage of the Bulger case is the following comment made by Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, the probation officers union in The Independent (07/03/10) ‘”A disturbed child who kills, then spends eight years in a secure unit and then nine years having to pretend they’re somebody else is bound to be deeply psychologically affected. It’s not surprising that he may have revealed his true identity, given the enormity of what he’s done and the difficulty of coming to terms with that and a new identity.” Venables being recalled to prison is the “worst possible outcome” given the years spent trying to rehabilitate him, he added’. That for me sums up; the case for the continued rehabilitation and maintenance of anonymity for Venables and Thompson, as well as the case for rehabilitation of serious offenders – especially child criminals – over punitive punishment.

The James Bulger murder is deeply upsetting and horrific. Murder is of course one of, if not the ultimate, crime one can commit, but the Bulger case is set apart because the perpetrators were ten year old boys (the age of a year 4 or 5 primary school child). To argue that they are fully accountable for their actions and should be treated like adults in a criminal court – or even more absurdly that they should receive lifetime punishment, even execution, for their crimes – disregards their un-developed cognitive abilities to be fully responsible for their actions. Further, if we do not see it as morally correct to permanently take away an individuals liberty then rehabilitative methods of justice and punishment must always prevail over punitive retribution.

First published March 16th 2009

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