Monday, June 27, 2011

no dope

A good education is such a worthwhile thing; it broadens the mind, develops the intellect, increases knowledge and skills, provides opportunities for better jobs, and prevents you from going to prison when you set up a sideline of supplying class A and B drugs.

Doctor’s son Edward Holland, BSc MSc and PhD to be, had been a cannabis user since the age of 16, and now at 24 he diversified into supplying it and offering to supply cocaine too, in fairly small amounts, making up to £200 per week for four months. Described in court by his barrister as a “high flyer” (please tell me he did see the joke in that), the judge suspended a 12 month custodial sentence because, as he put it, You are clearly a highly intelligent young man and you have a choice about the direction your life may take. You can choose to become a successful scientist with all the rewards that may bring. Or you can become a drug dealer and serve increasingly long sentences in jail.

All drug suppliers have choices so that itself doesn’t make his case any different. The difference must be that the judge thought Holland was clever enough to make the correct choice whereas other suppliers, who may be less intelligent and not as well educated, would make the wrong choice. But a spell in prison for them would increase the chances that they make the wrong choice when they are released.

The decision doesn’t stand up to logical analysis and, whilst I have no wish to see the biochemistry star go to prison, high education and intelligence cannot be a mitigation of the offence; if anything it makes it worse.

New guidelines on sentencing for drug crime have been produced by the Sentencing Council and are under consultation. The proposed new starting point for supply of even a very small quantity of cocaine is a lengthy spell in prison, even when taking into account the early guilty plea and no previous convictions. The Sentencing Council does not mention education or intelligence as reason for suspending a sentence, but it was a reasonable judgement to do so.

The unfairness is on those who will not be given that privilege but, despite not having a degree or two, might also have taken positive advantage of a second chance and changed their lives. We will never know. Suspending prison sentences is more an art than a science and needs a more consistent basis of application. Meanwhile, Edward is a very lucky young man indeed.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

wrong type of hair

A High Court judge has ruled that a school that refused to admit a boy who had a cornrow hairstyle had implemented a policy that was indirectly an act of racial discrimination because the school did not allow any exceptions, even for a family’s cultural background.

As in many legal rulings, the words (over 10,000 of them in this case) have to be read very carefully. Mr Justice Collins did not say that it was unlawful to refuse admission to the boy; just that the policy was wrong. It is hard to understand how the judge has seen it as racial discrimination, direct or indirect. By making exceptions, the school would leave itself open to accusation of discrimination, but it applied its uniform policy, that included hairstyle, to all pupils irrespective of racial origin, skin colour, creed or culture.

And it is that nebulous word ‘culture’ that is at the heart of this dispute. It can take on a variety of meanings from an established and historic national or racial tradition to a newly created practice or belief. The boy’s mum said that his hairstyle was of great importance to his cultural and racial identity. Really ? Whereas the school sees a cornrow as a badge of a gang culture that it is anxious to exclude from the school to maintain a high standard of behaviour. It also bans white boys from having skinhead cuts. No objections there, interestingly.

So what’s the problem here ? The school has a right to have a uniform policy and apply it rigorously, making it known to current and prospective parents and pupils. Those who don’t like it can go to another school. But a policy should be sensible and pragmatic; it can still try to prevent gang cultures in the school without outlawing a particular hairstyle.

The boy and his parents should have been pragmatic too; adapt to the school rule; it’s only for a few years. Claiming a cultural reason for nonconformity opens the doors to all kinds of idiosyncratic clothing and adornments that would quickly ruin the ethos of the school and its behaviour strategy. And the judge, wearing his bright red robe and long (completely unnecessary) white wig should understand that uniforms can reflect a culture too. What exceptions to their uniform do High Court judges allow ?

To escalate this trivial matter to the High Court, and possibly to a further appeal, is where we go wrong. What a waste of court time. Not every argument should become a question of human rights to be judged by expert legal minds who feel obliged to rule between standpoints that are both valid but inherently subjective. Whether or not a haircut is appropriate in a school is a matter of opinion not law, and there is where it should remain.


Friday, June 17, 2011

no room for chat

Sentencing is very simple. To all those who don’t do it. The case of Joanne Fraill is bound to elicit disparate and dogmatic views on whether a prison sentence is appropriate for inappropriate chatting. At a time when the government wants to reduce our prison population, reduce sentences for those giving early guilty pleas, and make more use of curfews and rehabilitating community orders, it may seem incongruous to send a 40 year old mum to prison for typing “dont worry about that chge no way it can stay hung for me - this is 2nd tim init - at least then yer home n dry”.

Sounds innocent enough, if you can interpret it, except that Joanne was sitting on a jury at the time and was chatting over the internet to Jamie Stewart who had just been acquitted of conspiracy to supply class A, but leaving the fate of her co-defendants in a £6million drugs trial still to be decided by Joanne and her co-jurors. During a crown court trial jurors are repeatedly warned by the judge not to dicuss the trial with anyone at all, not even family, and not to carry out internet searches on anything relating to the individuals or matters involved.

But Joanne searched for and found Jamie. When their online chat was exposed the following day, the trial had to be stopped and a potential miscarriage of justice was the outcome. The guilty chatter knew what she was doing was wrong, as evidenced by one of her remarks to Jamie: “cant get anywaone to go either no one budging pleeeeeese dont say anyhting cause Jamie they could call mmiss trial and i will get 4cked to0”.

And 4cked she was. Sentencing Joanne to 8 months immediate custody for contempt of court, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, said that “jailing jurors who abuse the process was the only way to ensure the ‘continuing integrity’ of trials in the 21st century”. But is he right ?

Her offence wasn’t violent, she didn’t break in to someone’s home, she hasn’t stolen, kidnapped, committed fraud or sexual offences, nor even carried a knife. She has no previous convictions. The Lord Chancellor, aka Ken Clarke, says in his major proposals for reform of sentencing, titled Breaking the Cycle, that prison will always be the right sentence for serious and dangerous offenders. Does that include Joanne ?

Well yes it does. Not that she is a dangerous offender nor, in the round, a serious one. But this offence was serious. Very serious in its consequences. And the prison sentence is right because it is the only viable deterrent to an explosion in the criminal abuse of internet based facilities that will occur if the deterrent isn’t used. Internet chatters have to understand that they are accountable for what they do and say on the effortless global medium, just as if they were writing a letter and signing it. The protection assumed until now by the detachment afforded by the internet from the spoken, printed or handwritten word is disappearing. The internet isn’t the escape from reality that it once was.

Although she won't serve eight months, probably (and hopefully) not more than two, Joanne is a little unfortunate to have been made the example and been imprisoned to establish a precedent and a principle. Arguments over whether prison acts as a deterrent are numerous and often based on flawed studies. To a career criminal maybe it doesn't but to the ordinary and generally law abiding person, like Joanne and other chatters, it certainly does. The flouting of court orders, even on the internet, will, if it goes unchecked, bring criminal justice into suspicion, cynicism and disrepute. Judge Judge is right. It must be deterred.


Tuesday, June 07, 2011

false start

Responding to the disclosure that 55% of people who entered the first ballot for Olympics 2012 tickets didn’t get any at all, the chief executive of London 2012 looked forward to the second ballot and said with a broad and nauseating smile on his wide-eyed face "we want to make sure that people who were disappointed first time around have the best chance of getting tickets."

But he didn’t finish the sentence. The missing words at the end are “.... for events they don’t wish to see at a price they don’t wish to pay”. His evangelical expression deepened when he proudly boasted that 1 in 8 children at London schools will be given a free ticket. He really knows how to rub it in. Those children will be alive the next time the Olympics circus comes to town in this country; most of those who entered the lucky dip, with a commitment to pay hundreds or thousands of pounds to the cause, probably won’t.

The fact is the Olympics bosses have made a hash of it, and though it will never be admitted, they know it and it is written all over their faces. They set up a ticket allocation system so flawed that it beggars belief. Instead of having a mechanism by which each applicant gets tickets in proportion to the total number available and to the amount of money each was prepared to spend, they have enabled 810,000 lucky applicants to share 6,600,000 tickets, that is on average over 8 tickets per person. An average of 4 tickets for all applicants would have been much fairer.

Too many tickets have been set aside for wealthy sponsoring corporations whose suited executives won’t know too much about where they are, what sport it is or which countries are competing; talking business deals and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, savouring the atmosphere and the status of just ‘being there’. While the trusting British public were spending hours planning their applications and filling out the online forms, having been told that this was the only way to obtain tickets, websites in Germany and Denmark were selling them to anyone who asked.

The ballot winners woke up one morning to find that an arbitrary sum had been deducted from their credit or debit cards, without knowing whether it had gone to buy tickets for the 100 metres final, the handball heats, or to a fraudster who had managed to hack into their account. At a time when we are continually warned to take the utmost care over online transactions, the Olympics authorities had the bizarre idea of just taking the money without even a mention to the account holder.

So the numerous ballot losers will miss out on the crush at the Olympic Park, the smell of expensive ‘gourmet’ fast food, the tedious security checks, the long queue for a train home and the people directly in front blocking their view by standing up to get another beer just as Jessica Ennis crosses the finishing line. They will console themselves by spending the money they have saved on a new, large screen, high definition TV that will provide them with the best seat in the house, and still have change. Don’t worry we’ll get the World Cup in we won’t.

Sebastian Coe frequently reminds us that the organisation of the Games is a marathon and not a sprint but for nearly 1 million empty-handed, ticketless sports lovers, it’s a false start and they have been disqualified.