“We washed down the underpass. I was sweating. Dirt ran down my arms.”
Lord Phillips, Lord Chief Justice
The Observer today has a fascinating story describing how Lord Philips rolled up his sleeves and spent a day with offenders on a community service ‘payback scheme’ cleaning an underpass. It is worth reading.
According the newspaper report, Lord Phillips “wanted to prove that non-custodial sentences are the right alternative for many to prisons now so overcrowded he considers it ‘difficult or impossible’ for them to rehabilitate offenders and prevent re-offending.”
The issue of imprisonment is complex. Britain’s prisons are full to bursting point – to a point where Police may have to / are having to accommodate convicted criminals in Police station cells.
Briefly – the Observer comments: “Phillips argues it is ‘madness to spend £37,000 jailing someone when, by spending much less on services in the community, you can do as good a job’. He is highly critical of what he sees as the underfunding of community-based punishments and calls for better resources. ‘It’s no answer just to put more and more people in prison,’ he said. “
You may read the report on Mary Riddell’s interview with the LCJ in The Observer . I see no point in rehearsing the debate here.
What impressed me, however, was the fact that Lord Phillips took the trouble to arrange to spend a day doing the type of community service work which those sentenced to community service orders have to do – and went to a great deal of trouble to avoid the Press getting wind of the story, lest they deride it as a publicity stunt. (I liked the idea of his ‘cover’ story being that of a ‘shipping solicitor convicted of driving with excess alcohol and sentenced to 150 hours unpaid work and 18 months disqualification.)
Clearly, there is a serious problem with overcrowding in prisons. Clearly, prison, as a deterrent, as a remedy for crime, does not always work and clearly, there is a need for political action. Building another 8000 prison places is probably not the answer. I have little expertise in this area, but it does seem to me that it is pretty pointless to imprison people who are unlikely to be a danger and threat to society when alternative punishment or penalty may not only be cheaper but also be of greater use to society.
I find it encouraging to know that we have a Lord Chief Justice who is not only prepared to be ‘Liberal’ and think more widely about sentencing options, but who is prepared to roll up his sleeves and address the problem properly with direct action and bring the weight and experience of the Judiciary to bear on a problem which should not just be left to election motivated politicians and the Press.
No doubt some politicians will mock this ‘awayday’ experiment – but, for my part, Phillips has not only given a good demonstration of the problem we face with our overcrowded prisons, he has made a very public statement that he plans to do his part to do something about it and has laid down a very clear marker to the Home Office (in the same Observer story) that the Judiciary will continue, in matters relating to law generally and the Human Rights Act in particular, “apply the law as it is.”
Just goes to show what happens to me when I read The Observer before getting stuck into the News of The World. I shall resume normal non-legal service shortly !…