There seems to be a desire in this country to endlessly punish those who have previously committed crime. Society seems to largely place “criminals” (and especially “prisoners”) into a category of their own that is not recognised as being human. Yes, some people commit despicable crimes and are deserving of a severe punishment. However, they are still human and still deserve to be treated with dignity.
One argument that is often banded about when discussing the issue of the rights of prisoners/offenders/accused persons is that they had no thought or respect for the rights of the victim of their offences. While that may be true, it does not mean that, as a society, we should disregard the rights of those who commit crime; at least not if we are a decent society.
There are a number of things that really frustrate me when discussing criminal justice with people, particularly around those who are serving or have served a prison sentence (although not exclusively).
The first of those relates to prison itself. Fyodor Dostoyevsky said: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.” Prison is a punishment; it is the most severe form of punishment that we have at our disposal in this country. As such, it really ought to be reserved for the most dangerous in society (including those who persistently offend). The removal of a person’s liberty is a serious matter. Think of all the decisions you take on a daily basis which rely on your freedom; there are a lot of them. These decisions are removed from prisoners as part of their punishment. An individual’s time in prison ought to be productive with those who are acting responsibly and complying with the rules of the prison being rewarded for that. There does need to be some form of ‘carrot and stick’ approach in prisons; after all there is a far greater number of prisoners than there are prison officers at any given time. Take televisions as an example. There appears to be a great deal of upset by members of the great British public that prisoners have access to a television in their cell. Normally, a television comes as part of the “standard” level of the Incentives and Earned privileges (IEP) Programme within a prison. It doesn’t feature in the “basic” bracket. Therefore, a prisoner who doesn’t comply with the prison authorities is liable to lose access to their television until such times as they are put back on the “standard” grade of the IEP scheme. Prisoners usually have to pay for the privilege of having a TV in their cell as well (normally around £1 per cell with the cost being split between prisoners where there is more than one in a given cell). There are other “issues” that many in society have with what prisoner’s get, but I’ll not address them in this post as I would like to look at some wider issues that go beyond just those incarcerated for their offences.
Once a person is convicted of a crime the court will sentence them to a punishment that it, with the help of statutory and non-statutory guidance, considers appropriate based on the particular circumstances of that offence. No two cases are ever the same and as such seemingly similar offences may attract very different sentences. That sentence might be a fine, a community order or a custodial sentence (there are many more sentences and combinations of sentence, but three will do for the purposes of this post). The offender will serve the sentence handed down by the court. They will receive a criminal record which will follow them for the rest of their life (although they may not have to continue to disclose their convictions once certain criteria are met). That’s all fine and good and the individual should be entitled to go about their life. However, in this country we seem to favour continually punishing offenders. Employment all of a sudden becomes harder to gain, insurance premiums rise and it is assumed by many that a criminal record (no matter how old) means they will commit offences again.
There have been some very good examples of ridiculous situations arising because of criminal records that are decades old. In England and Wales they will soon be electing Police and Crime Commissioners who will take on an important role in holding the local police to account throughout England and Wales. A number of candidates for this office have had to withdraw from the campaign because of crimes they committed as teenagers; often 40-50 years ago. It seems quite ridiculous that people who have overwhelmingly been law abiding citizens save for a “blip” half a century ago are still feeling the effect of that today. What good does it serve society if, after such a long period of time, we are going to continue to judge a person by mistakes they made in the past? Does such a situation not provide a disincentive to people to go “straight”? Why stop committing crime if the crimes you have committed are going to continue to haunt you for the rest of their natural life? The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 was supposed to prevent such situations from occurring. However, there is an enormous list of posts which are exempt from its provisions and the periods set out in the Act which must pass before an offence becomes “spent” are ridiculously long in some cases. I’m not saying that there should be no exceptions. Of course a known paedophile should not be permitted to work with children. However, the exemptions and the “rehabilitation periods” should certainly be tightened up a lot more. Former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke had suggested doing this in England and Wales. However, his party was not really behind him and as such it was never going to happen.
Another recent proposal, announced by Ken Clarke, which is an example of never-ending punishment, is to remove those with unspent serious convictions from eligibility to receive criminal injuries compensation. If a person is given a custodial sentence of more than thirty months (2.5 years) then the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 does not provide a period after which the conviction is spent (i.e. it never becomes spent). Such persons may, under this proposal, never be entitled to criminal injuries compensation. Let’s consider a person sentenced to four years imprisonment when they are 16 for assaulting someone using a bladed article. They are released from prison and live a law-abiding life from their release. They go through life and in their fifties are seriously assaulted. They continue to have an unspent conviction and would not be entitled to criminal injuries compensation. Is that really fair? It’s nothing other than treating someone differently because of something they did decades prior to being the victim of a serious crime. It’s simply prejudiced.
I firmly believe in and support the rights of those in prison and those convicted of crimes. They may have transgressed the rules of society, but they are punished for that at the time. However, I do also believe in offenders taking responsibility for their offences. That should rarely mean being continually punished for the rest of their life because, for example, they stole when they had no money or did something reckless when they were younger.
I believe that we need a sensible, level-headed debate around criminal justice in this country. Far too often punishment and rehabilitation are pitted off against one another when the two need to be looked at together, as part of the one system. Punishment is essential as a way of ensuring those who commit crimes take responsibility for their actions, but at the same time we should be encouraging offenders to change and not putting brick walls in their way when they do try and change. There are some excellent examples of people who have committed offences in the past, but have managed to turn their life around and make a success of it. We should not place unnecessary barriers in the way of others who want to do the same. Employers need to be more open-minded as does society as a whole. We need to stop treating offenders and ex-offender like second-class citizens (or worse, as sub-human) and start engaging properly and effectively with them if we are to have a decent society. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was correct.