No money? No job? No Justice


One of the cornerstones of our criminal justice system is that ability to pay should be considered when setting a fine.
On the face of it, this seems entirely reasonable. Fine a rich man £100 and he doesn’t give a damn; fine a poor man the same, and he’s financially crippled. So, when sentencing anyone for a crime, it make sense to assess their financial situation and put that assessment in the pot, along with the nature of the crime, when considering an appropriate sentence.
However, here’s how it really works.
The vast majority of crime in any given area is committed by a very small number of persistent criminals, and the nature of these crimes – theft, shop-lifting, vehicle document offences (no tax, MOT etc.), minor criminal damage – is such that a fine is the usual punishment.
But almost invariably, they have no job, and no savings; they are in receipt of state benefits, and have outstanding fines from previous offences.
So their ability to pay almost any fine is non-existent.
Well, you may say, then give them another punishment option – perhaps a couple of days in prison, or some work in the community, or a curfew, or something like that. Nice idea, but not possible. The punishment must fit the crime, and the tariffs are set to reflect that rule. Prison, and those other options, are simply not available to punish the kinds of crime which would normally be dealt with by a fine.
The practical, real-world, bottom line for these cases is summarised like this:

No job? No money? No fine. No justice. So No worries! Life is good.

I have sat in many cases where we’ve handed down a paltry fine to a persistent offender because of this.
Now lets add to that sorry state of affairs a few more truths.

How do we know that an offender has no ability to pay a fine? Some rigorous examination of their assets? Legal powers to inspect their bank accounts and financial status? Nope. We ASK THEM. We invite them to fill in a small three-fold A4 means form. They bring it to court and we read it. THAT is the process we use to assess the financial status of known criminals – we take their word for it!
And in fact, often they can’t be bothered to do that either. Do we send them out to fill in the form properly? No. Do we hold them in contempt of court and punish them for that? No. We just ask them a few questions:
“Got any money? Nah, Oh, OK then.”. Rigorous justice in action in our courts, daily.
And finally this. One day, I went down to our fines office to see how that worked. A very nice young lady working there let slip that they help offenders to fill out their means forms there, and they often guide them to not declare income or assets – because “they’ll have that off you”. So officers of the court are advising known criminals to pervert the course of justice by lying on their means forms to conceal assets, to avoid having them seized.
The summary is this. For a range of offences which, though not massively serious, cause the general public cost, inconvenience and distress, the perpetrators are largely immune from justice.
Good, innit?
No-one should be able to routinely escape justice in this way, and the solution doesn’t seem very hard to design:

  • Assess financial status rigorously

  • Seize assets where necessary (legally possible now, but – on my bench – never done and frowned upon)

  • Allow moving up-tarrif to unpaid work and further, for any offence when fines cannot be paid


Think of a Number. Now Halve it.

Many people will know that prison sentences in the UK are almost never served. Prisoners can generally expect to serve less than half of their sentence. The rest is spent out in the community “on license”. If these offenders re-offend, they may be taken back to prison to complete their term, but the original sentence is almost never served.

What you may not know is that magistrates are forbidden from considering this fact of life when arriving at their sentence. They must put this out of their minds, consider the offense, and then consider what time in prison would be appropriate for that crime. THEN the state will halve it or less.

Less me spell that out. Whatever masistrates think is the right sentence for the crime – the state will halve it, as a matter of course.

That is pretty perplexing right there. Why do we do that?

It’s an entirely reasonable question. And like so many other entirely reasonable questions about our criminal justice system – few know the answers. I served for four years, and I still don’t know. I asked around a lot; no-one else knew.

This is absolutely characteristic of the life of a magistrate. We must operate idiotic systems. We have no choices and so the “justice” we deliver is consequentially massively flawed.

Furthermore, no-one understands the “common sense” behind it, and quite often – no one cares. If you ask the professionals – the court clerks, they will have no explanations and often resent questions such as these as time wasting or trouble making.

Just show up, do your stint, and bugger off.

This is just one part of Great British Justice, as it happens up and down the country, every day. Year in, year out.


My Resignation Letter

I thought I’d include this early on in the BLOG to set the scene for what is to follow:

Alan, in the four years I’ve sat on the … bench my disappointment at almost all that I’ve seen has remained very high.
Many of the rules upon which we have been given to follow are often idiotic, and no-one seems to notice nor care.
The quality of justice we provide in Bedford is very poor indeed. No-one cares.
The efficiency with which we run the courts is astonishingly poor. No-one seems motivated to fix them.
These “difficult circumstances” I hear so much about cannot excuse simple, persistent inefficiency.
I have seen management charts which show me that the “manager” who prepared them is totally adrift with no clue what he’s doing.
I have met with a probation manager and that meeting tells me she is simply not nor never will be – management material.
In general, the probation service are horribly below standard, and strangely pro-offender – we accept their recommendations, we nod stuff through. It’s easier, and hey – we don’t want to make a fuss, do we?
Every single sitting I document several miserable instances of institutional idiocy. There seems to be no will to do better or even to acknowledge how bad things are. We just push on regardless.
Serious issues remain unaddressed for YEARS by “the correct channels” as you’ve termed them in the past,
whilst my attempts to address them promptly and directly have been met by hostility. This leaves me with no alternative but to sit tight and try to function as best I can in what I see as an embarrassing shambles. Tackling things on a point-by-point basis in court sessions is largely futile and unpopular.
I have sat like a thorn in the side of the bench for too long, and your “little note”, and the back-biting it evidences, is the final straw. Finally, even I can’t stand it any longer. I don’t have to do this, so – effective immediately, I will no longer do it.
If the public knew how we do what we do, they would be extremely angry, and rightly so. Perhaps I’ll write a book.
Good luck with it. I am very glad to have finally admitted defeat.

Just so you Know

This BLOG pushes for robust justice and argues against what I see as overly-lenient sentencing (as well as arguing against institutional idiocy, complacent incompetence and more), but I want to say some things to address those who feel that criminals are just folks who, in a tough spot, made bad decisions.

I AGREE WITH YOU 100%. If we want a happy just society, then the law courts are entirely the wrong place to start. By now, they’re usually young adults, and into crime. The pattern for their lives has been set. Our choices are all poor choices. The RIGHT place to start is by looking at how we grow our citizens. That means parenting, and schooling in the formative years.

However, we are where we are. When crimes have been committed, and victims have been damaged, and society has paid out a fortune, we need to act in ways which will make things better for society as a whole, with as little down-side as possible.

In my book, that means these things:

1. Sentences have two important roles. They should punish the criminal, and they should deter would-be and repeat offenders.
When a sentence is paltry, it serves neither purpose, whilst simultaneously costing society dearly to running a criminal justice system, which hands out wrist slaps.

2. Restorative justice should be at the heart of our criminal justice system. Where possible, the criminals should be held personally and financially responsible for restoring what they have destroyed.

3. Rehabilitation should be a goal, but not to the extent that it conflicts with the previous two items. And by the way, the way we currently do rehabilitation is MASSIVELY ineffective whilst also being MASSIVELY expensive AND IT DOES DAMAGE THE PREVIOUS TWO. A triple whammy.

So, please don’t comment on how “there but for the grace of God go I”. You may be right, though actually, you’re wrong in my case. I come from a very poor background and a troubled family. I have not committed crime, but I accept that others will, and those others aren’t necessarily “wicked” – a concept with very limited usefulness.

I am saying, again, that we are where we are, and dealing with those who commit crimes which damage society should be strongly discouraged before and after the fact, and heavily involved in putting right their wrongs.

December 2018
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