Eeyore and the criminal justice system
Ordinarily I am wary of what might be called the ‘Eeyorish tendency’ within British society. By the Eeyorish tendency I mean the tendency to whine pessimistically, and to have the feeling that something, like our country, or possibly even the world, is inexorably going to hell in a handcart. The tendency is obviously named after the similarly cheerless donkey out of Winnie the Pooh. Examples of this would be when canvassing at election time, to be told repeatedly by members of the public that they are not going to make the short trip to their local polling station to exercise their democratic rights, because ‘they’re all the same.’ Even were one to go along with the proposition that a candidate from the British National Party or UKIP were ‘the same’ as a candidate from, say, the Green Party, or the Liberal Democrats- which I believe is both stupid and insulting- the thing that sticks in my claw about this tendency to default gloom is that it is often based on utter ignorance. I can’t help wondering how many such people can even name their local candidates. And then there is the fact that as a strategy of dealing a blow to a failing political system, the apathy policy is clearly a failure on its own terms, given that the less people vote the more it serves to narrow the political field, as candidates of the mainstream parties crowd the political centre. Looking across the Atlantic, it is surely highly likely that a third party could become viable in America, if the approx 50% of the population who cannot be bothered to vote did so. Instead we are left with a Republican and Democratic Party which people rightly complain hardly offers any choice at all on many issues. Further, this kind of Eeyorish apathy is often simply an excuse for people who cannot be bothered to do anything about a perceived problem, and wish to dress up their laziness and cynicism as some kind of protest against the perfidious machine.
Having established that I am generally not sympathetic to the Eeyorish tendency, I must admit that I did have a similar kind of feeling, of wanting to scrunch up the newspaper I was reading and simply fling it off the tube platform I was waiting on, when I read an article in 31st December’s Guardian about how the government faces compensation claims from around 6000 prisoners who have suffered delays to their release from prison. The article blames ‘staff shortages’ at the Parole Board and the Public Protection Casework Section (PPCS) of the Ministry of Justice, which deals with the release paperwork, for the delays. Well, an argument can be had about the efficacy of the government’s economic policy, which entails the sharp public sector spending cuts that are responsible for the recruitment freezes or staff redundancies at the Parole Board and PPCS. But the final line of the Guardian article says that:
‘A recent National Audit Office report estimated the taxpayer faced a £5.1m bill for keeping prisoners beyond their release dates because of parole delays between November 2009 and July 2010.’
This situation is absurd. This figure is surely far larger than what the figure would be for employing a small number more staff to expedite the process more quickly. At a time when over 8% of the population are unemployed it seems ridiculous that there are any staff shortages in public sector bodies or government departments, especially when those shortages lead to incurring greater costs than are saved.
This story was one of the routine, eye roll-inducing harpingers we get through the media that our justice system is not working in the way that it should. It seems that the justice system in Britain can sometimes look a bit like the American political system in microcosm. That is to say that even ostensibly strong, competent and charismatic political figures (in the case of our justice system, Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary) are hamstrung by an axis of a sclerotic and timid political system, vested interests, demagogic partisanship, unhelpful, fear-mongering sections of the media and public apathy, from making the reforms which a majority of people agree are needed. In America a now largely dysfunctional political system is currently unable to ‘fix’ hugely pressing and important issues, such as social security reform, tax reform, the immigration system, deficit reduction etc. The farcical stand-off that President Obama and Congress engaged in last July over the nation’s debt was a highpoint of this gridlock.
When it comes to the problems with our prison system, the dysfunction has been allowed to fester particularly in this area partly because prisoners are quite understandably not seen as a cohort that people wish to prioritise. This insouciance has a knock-on to our elected representatives, and, especially in a time of recession, reads over into the allocation of scarce public resources. The dangerously overcrowded state of our prisons, lack of custodial offending behaviour courses, lack of productive activity of any kind while prisoners are incarcerated, the fact that upwards of 70% of sentenced prisoners have two or more mental illnesses, delays in Parole Board hearings and the PPCS bureaucracy, and other problems, have been features of our prison system for years, with seemingly no great energy for reform coming from any politicians.
Hopes were therefore high in some quarters when the more liberal Ken Clarke came into office, that something would be done about what he himself dubbed- in the wake of the riots of August 2010- our ‘broken penal system.’ The system is unarguably ‘broken’ in many respects, but one would be hard-pushed to find anything at all that the Justice Secretary has done about it, in over 18 months in office.
If we allow the Eeyorish tendency of throwing our arms in the air and, for example, resigning ourselves to a prison population which axiomatically rises every year, we are heading for disaster. It seems highly likely that prison overcrowding, to take one of the problems, will lead to dangerously escalating discipline problems within prisons in the future, if it is not addressed. While the more general problem, of an under-funded criminal justice system, which is creaking at the seems in many respects, could have a range of damaging consequences, among others more of the type of amoral rioting which made many of us thoroughly ashamed to be British last summer.
Mr Clarke must urgently marshal a coalition of those who, supposedly like him, believe in radical reform, such as colleagues in the Liberal Democrats, some in the Labour Party, and many within the criminal justice community, to educate the public about the current parlous state of the system, and what can be done about it. A few prompt reforms should include more community sentencing; less prison incarceration for mentally ill people; more preventive interventions in problem families before they reach prison; a more flexible approach to public spending, such that departments and non-departmental bodies can have all the staff that they need. Much of this will meet with a cacophony of resistance from the tabloid press and those within Mr Clarke’s Tory Party. However, these people must be faced squarely with the question as to whether they really wish to continue pushing water up a hill with the current approach, which has so lamentably failed, for example in the fact that we see reoffending rates of between 60-70% of offenders being back in prison within two years of release. Changing course, in any event, need not be about ‘going soft’ on prisoners. Reform is not about saying that the riots, or crime in general, are the fault of the system per se. I believe in a strong element of retribution and punishment for serious offenders, which obviously entails prison. And the primary responsibility for their actions lies with criminals and rioters. However, what we have at the moment is a system which is supposedly tough on offenders, but in reality consists of throwing people into expensive prisons, with other criminals, in a state of idle boredom, for extended periods of time; and then often paying them damages, because the system is so hopeless that it cannot even release them within the specified period. Some then seem surprised that this system does not always succeed in rehabilitating people into society. Mr Clarke must not wait for the collapsing scenery of another nadir, such as the riots, before he accelerates with reform.