Time and Punishment

Read Nick Cohen on Ronnie Biggs:

Jack Straw’s spiteful refusal to allow Biggs to leave Norwich prison continues a pattern of bureaucratic vindictiveness that began when the courts treated the robbers as if they were worse than killers. Even the Mail of the day condemned the judge’s extraordinarily severe sentences and asked: ‘Does this mean that stealing banknotes is more wicked than murdering somebody?’

Straw overturned not only the parole board’s recommendation but also, I am told, the advice of his own civil servants that Biggs be allowed to die in peace. Biggs was ‘wholly unrepentant’ and had ‘outrageously courted the media’, he said as he rejected the appeals of just about everyone to show mercy.

I am all for ‘victim-offender dialogues’, ‘restorative justice’ and forcing criminals to ‘confront their offending behaviour’. I can spend many a happy hour wallowing in the sociological jargon of criminologists as they try in their clumsy way to explain how villains should make amends. But the idea that a convict serving a 30-year sentence should repent for breaking out of Wandsworth nick is only slightly less preposterous than the notion that anyone would believe him if he did.

In any case, how could Biggs express his contrition? He is being fed through a tube and has to use an alphabet board because he can no longer speak. King Lear cries to Gloucester: ‘See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?’

After Straw’s refusal to show common decency and allow a dying man to spend his last days with his family, I too cannot see how the justice minister is morally superior to the train robber.

I don’t subscribe to the old-school romance of the 1960’s-70’s gentleman villain. But nor do I see the point of prolonging the incarceration of someone who is no longer a physical threat. We’re used to home secretaries indulging in mindless posturing over crime, and what makes it ridiculous is that while the elderly Biggs is still languishing inside, violent offenders are getting laughable or even suspended sentences for hideous crimes.

Every police blogger has a story like this. Via Copperfield, here’s an example from back in March. Three guys subjected a Teesside pub to an orgy of assault and affray. From the local paper:

Foley started the violence. He swung a punch at an Army Cadet instructor and picked up and raised a chair. All three were pushed outside where they launched a ‘frenzied’ group assault on an off-duty barman, then followed him inside for more on October 30 last year.

When the barman’s girlfriend begged them to stop, Breckon said: ‘Don’t touch me or I’ll lay you out, little girl. I’ll knock **** out of you.’

None of them got a custodial sentence despite having numerous prior convictions and ASBO breaches. Compare this case to that of the canoe guy who received six years for his elaborate insurance fraud.

Brian Reade (an intelligent and perceptive man, whatever you think of his paper) argues that weak sentencing isn’t due to the permissive society but simply a matter of brute economics: ‘The price of keeping criminals inside is deemed too costly, so soft sentences are handed out and parole granted too quickly, and the feelings of the bereaved are trampled on.’ 

It’s hard to avoid the impression that the criminal justice system exists mainly to protect the rich. Monsters walk out of court laughing, but we can still find room in jail for those who steal large amounts of money from powerful institutions. It’s a screwed system that values property over people.

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6 Responses to “Time and Punishment”

  1. Willow Hewitt Says:

    Max there are clearly two issues here. Should violent offenders get longer prison sentences? Yes, but how does that relate to somebody who skipped the country to avoid being sent to prison for a crime he committed? If he really wanted to die at home, he could have stayed in England, served his sentence and been out by now. I’m not saying you’ve not raised good points, but you’ve got your agendas mixed.

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    I think the original sentence of 30 years was far too severe for the crime he committed. There are killers who serve less than half that.

  3. Willow Hewitt Says:

    Well he obviously thought it was too severe as well so he escaped from prison and left the country. But then if he then chose to return to the country he can’t really expect to be released from his sentence just because he’s old. That’s not a factor in our justice system. I definitely do think he should have a right to appeal the sentence and they should take years off, but then he also should have years added for escaping from prison.

    There ARE killers who serve next to nothing and I think that’s atrocious. But it’s not relevant to whether a criminal should be released from prison because he’s old. There are factors other than how dangerous he is, prison is about punishment and deterring other criminals.

  4. maxdunbar Says:

    I see prison as a containment function first, it’s made primarily to contain people who pose a threat to the public. There’s no way he will live long enough to serve the rest of his sentence. As Biggs is no longer a physical threat I don’t see the point in holding him.

  5. Willow Hewitt Says:

    That’s interesting. Does it mean you think he should never have been put in prison when he returned to the country?

  6. maxdunbar Says:

    No, I don’t think that. But I am sceptical about the use of public money to incarcerate a dying man who poses little or no threat to the public.

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