Tuesday 23 April 2013

Be very afraid of a judicial system with a point to make

Reading yesterday that Chris Huhne was back in court fighting an award of punitive costs of £110,000, on the grounds that he took a long time to plead guilty, I was suddenly overtaken by a wave of sympathy for him.

It is true that I am not unbiassed.  I know Chris and admire him a great deal.  As far as I know, there is no law against self-incrimination - quite the reverse - so I don't see why he should be punished twice in this way.  But then, I am not a lawyer either.

The really extraordinary thing is that Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce were given eight months in prison for a non-violent single offence, and - let's face it - a rather common offence too, committed before he was even elected.

I know there ought to be another standard for cabinet ministers who lie to the authorities, but this does explain a little why our prisons are being so pointlessly overcrowded - 83,000 in England and Wales according to the most recent statistics which came out on Friday (down on last year, but still 3,500 over maximum capacity).

This in itself is some explanation why crime remains such a problem: prisons are so ineffective that the rate of prisoners reoffending within a year after release has just risen to 26.8 per cent.  Some prisons are such breeding grounds for crime that the rate is over 70 per cent.

Worst of all, perhaps, imagine having to listen to the hypocrisy and cant, piled high from the prosecution lawyers and others over the Huhne case.  Ugh.

But then, they have a point to make.  Chris Huhne was a thorn in the side of the establishment.  Too many people pretend that partners were driving when they get flashed by robot speeding cameras.  He must not just be jailed, he apparently has to be talked to death, humiliated - and then fined.

I agree, I am not an objective observer - but I am unsure whether anyone ought to be imprisoned when they are no danger to the public.  There may be exceptions in the case of multiple offenders, but they will be very rare.  But like the Myth of the Great White Defendant in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, Huhne was so unusual, so privileged in comparison to the hopeless cases who queue through the criminal justice system, that he had to draw the full enthusiasm of the system down on him.

By so doing, he revealed just how ineffective it is.

Which brings me round to Rolf Harris.  Now, I've no idea what he is accused of, or when.  But, again, you have to beware the judicial system when it is trying to make a point - this time, a mea culpa response to their failure to restrain Jimmy Saville.

I don't know Rolf, though it is true I'm not objective here either - I could forgive him almost anything because of the role he played in my childhood.  But I can't see how anyone can defend themselves effectively against an accusation about something that happened three decades or more ago.

You know there is a whiff of a witch hunt when you have to think twice about criticising a prosecution in case people think you have something to hide yourself.

All this provides some clue why low level and violent crime remains such a problem in so many places.  Because the system is off trying to make points, investigating elderly TV presenters after the horse has bolted, and filling up the prisons so counter-productively.  What they ought to be doing - as they have been so effectively in New York - is building very local partnerships with communities to fight crime street by street.

In the end, as I may have mentioned before, what is important is what works.

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