There have been some interesting commentaries on the justice system this week. In Peru we had the sort of action I believe is common in America - the two British girls charged with drugs smuggling have been protesting their innocence in court, but, with the prospect of 15 years in prison, were advised to plead guilty and receive a mere 6 years sentence. This says nothing about their guilt or innocence of course, but merely that the local justice system is punitive.
In the UK, we are less punitive in this way. But there remain anomalies. Voting rights for prisoners is one. Although a recent decision in Parliament was not to afford voting rights to prisoners, that decision is now being re-examined. It is generally acceptable here that those convicted of a crime may be incarcerated (not quite as readily as in the US). But it does seem inequitable that, if you have a penal system based on rehabilitation, as we have here, you should deny prisoners access to basic rights throughout the process of their return to society. The possibility of restoring voting rights towards the end of a sentence is now being considered. This makes good sense, although one has to accept that the voting pattern of prisoners may not be in line with patterns throughout the country. The world is divided on this question. US State legislatures have also taken differing views. What public opinion may make of the new proposal is to be seen; one possibility may well be that the public will see crimes as lying on some sort of scale of awfulness - it may be OK for burglars to vote, although maybe not child killers. But I like that there is a debate.
With the death of the notorious/famous gangster Ronnie Biggs, the media has been replaying his life and some of his public statements. One that struck me was from while he had been on the run 12 years (I think) after he had escaped from prison. He was asked whether he didn't feel that he ought to return to UK to finish his prison sentence. 'No,' he said. 'The aim of incarceration is rehabilitation. I have been living outside of prison for 12 years during which time I have committed no crime of any sort. I am therefore completely rehabilitated and have no need to return to prison.' Good point! Would that more criminals could achieve rehabilitation without the cost to the State of their incarceration.
One issue which seems to raise people's blood pressure more than others is that of MPs' or Lords' parliamentary expenses. There have been a number of criminal convictions now of members who made false statements in order to claim expenses. This is as it should be and should satisfy the public that such matters are properly policed. But recent cases of Lords attending the House for 30 minutes and thus claiming an attendance allowance has caused further ire. I just wanted to say that actually, however mean you might think this practice to be, it is not illegal. If you attend your place of work, you are entitled to the payments due from that attendance. Until the rules are rewritten or laws passed, even if it seems that 30 mins is an unacceptable length for a working day, it is the rules not the members' practices that are at fault. One member of the public interviewed on this subject, however, was so incensed that he demanded that all Lords should be sacked - thus effectively destroying any reasonable argument there might be for doing something about this situation. He then compounded his irrational outburst by saying that 'they only do the job for the money.' Er, yes, that's the general idea of employment.
Clearly, MPs and Lords have a lot of PR work to do. But also I do find interesting this apparent view that our actions should not only be legal, but also fair and perhaps moral. There is currently no way for the courts to consider such a concept, but nor do I believe that all we humans behave all the time in such an equitable way. But maybe we should try to bring more of this moral consideration into the justice system. Perhaps we could start with sentencing. I was fascinated that the police managed to persuade the courts that the Great Train Robbers, Biggs included, should be given prison terms of up to 25 years. This was pure vindictiveness on the part of the police, at a time when more serious crimes received lesser sentences (or am I constructing my own scale of awfulness?). Or perhaps the sentences were a message to the criminal underworld that we frown on organised crime. But this was a crime unique, or perhaps just of its time, in that no guns were used. 25 years for an unarmed robbery was not a good message to criminals though even then and the justice system did not in that case appear to have considered for example that the robbers might have tried to minimise injuries and have been less brutal than say a mugger or a rapist.
Finally, I can't finish this piece without a comment on the Charles Saatchi case. Two employees of the Saatchis (Charles and Nigella Lawson) were on trial accused of stealing or misusing several hundred thousand pounds from Charles' bank account. The defence case was that Nigella Lawson had condoned the theft of Charles' money in exchange for their concealing her drug use. In these unusual circumstances, although Nigella was not charged with any offence, indeed although it was the employees who were on trial and she was a witness for the prosecution, the judge permitted her cross-examination. The net result is that the only details of the trial that emerged were the employees' unsubstantiated allegations of Nigella's lifestyle and their criticism of her household management and her childminding abilities. I am appalled. Nigella denies the allegations of course. But, even were the allegations true, no proof has been offered to the court; as far as I know, Nigella has committed no crime; and an opinion poll seems to have found that the public are still content that Nigella's alleged lifestyle is acceptable. Yet Nigella's life has been pulled apart in the media, through no fault of her own (arguably) and hardly anything has been said about the accused's dissolute lifestyle. The jury has decided to accept the word of two women who clearly dipped freely into Charles Saatchi's bank account to treat themselves to holidays and expensive clothes, which, whether condoned or not, is entirely irrelevant to their employment, two women who claim that they were in effect paid off to conceal evidence ie allowed to commit a crime by dissembling to their employer and keeping a confidence which they have now anyway broken, and who one might say have now revealed their true characters by selling their stories immediately to the media, no doubt aiming further to justify their nefarious activities and blacken further the name of a woman who has been neither accused nor convicted, nor given the opportunity to defend herself. This seems to be the opposite of fairness in court. The justice system has done itself no good in my eyes today.