Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 15th April 2019

MOST folk would agree that our prisons are unpleasant and squalid places where drug-taking is rife and violence festers. The problem arises when politicians try to come up with an alternative that offers protection to the general public from some of the nasty criminals presently in prison, who would otherwise be walking the streets.

“Robust” is a word ministers are particularly fond of trotting out. It’s essentially meaningless. Certainly in the context of eliminating short prison sentences and replacing them with community orders that offenders simply laugh at.

There is an escalating prison crisis. MPs say many of them are overrun with “feral young kids” who have no respect for authority and only understand the language of violence. The Commons Justice Committee last week highlighted growing safety problems among the 82,000 prison population, with assaults and self-harm reaching an all-time high.

Justice Secretary David Gauke recently suggested we stop sending offenders to prison for fewer than six months. Now the Government is being urged to consider abolishing sentences of less than a year. These shorter sentences would be replaced by “robust” community sentences alongside treatment for drug addiction and mental health problems.

Prison isn’t working. I agree. But neither are these community sentences which criminals look on as a joke. So the Government plans to turn more violent offenders out on the streets to ignore these “robust” community orders and threaten the safety of the public.

Who says it won’t work? None other than our leading judge, Chief Justice Lord Burnett. Speaking in the House of Lords he said scrapping jail sentences of fewer than six months left the courts with no effective penalties to deal with repeat offenders who failed to carry out community sentences.

If our senior judges have lost faith in non-custodial sentences, where does that leave this whole mess? Lord Burnett is clearly not convinced that “robust” community orders are likely to be effectively monitored. Multiple breaches of these orders are simply not being reported back to the courts.

While the Government, if it can spare the time from agonising internally over Brexit, has a responsibility for keeping prisons safe, it has a greater responsibility for keeping the public safe from violent criminals.

Prisons minister Rory Stewart has pledged to resign if conditions in some of our worst jails are not improved and I have no doubt of his good intentions when he says there is “persuasive evidence” showing community sentences are often more effective in reducing reoffending than short spells behind bars.

However Tory MP Philip Davies obtained figures last month showing criminals sentenced to six months or fewer had racked up an average of 55 offences each. Doubtless most of them had community orders at some stage in their extensive criminal careers.

Truth to tell sorting out prisons and sentencing policy is going to be an expensive business. If the prison population is to be cut, then proper monitoring of non-custodial orders is a must. Plus, those orders have got to mean something, not simply be a way of “getting off” real punishment.

Lord Burnett says: “There is a real problem with multiple offenders. The shoplifter who has done it 24 times and nothing has worked, and offences against justice are examples.”

Maybe his comments at a meeting with the Justice Secretary have had some impact. Mr Gauke agreed when questioned by MPs on the Commons Justice Committee that reducing short sentences needs to be reviewed in the context of improving the alternatives. “I don’t think that one can just, overnight, get rid of short sentences and hope for the best,” he commented.

I suspect hoping for the best is what has been going on for a long time. It’s evident that judges and magistrates have lost a good deal of faith in the system they are asked to operate. And prisons are showing the ravages of decades of neglect, becoming hotbeds of drug taking and violence.

I’m certain ministers like Rory Stewart are not for kicking cans further down the road. They can see the issues. But until community sentences become something the judiciary and the public can believe in, alternatives to prison don’t readily spring to mind.

LUCKY LEMURS

TOURISM businesses are girding up their loins for Easter and another holiday season ahead, and one local enterprise got double the publicity from its latest stunt, getting fluffy lemurs from the Lake District Wild Life Park at Bassenthwaite to join in yoga sessions at the adjacent Armathwaite Hall Hotel.

The hotel is offering yoga with lemurs — lemoga they call it — as part of its wellness programme. To be honest, when the regional TV station turned up, the lemurs seemed more interested in exploring the grass than assuming a position.

However, the national press, suckers for stories with an aah factor, and it was pretty darn close to 1st April, came up with some great pictures of lemurs copying the poses. All except one, in the shot carried by the i newspaper, which appeared to be showing its bottom to the camera. Now what kind of pose do they call that one?

TAKE MY TIP

JACK of all trades and master of none, you might say. I’ve done a variety of jobs in my journalistic life. Sport, politics, business, challenges sent in by readers — mostly ones with an element of personal danger — opinion columns, farming features, oh and the one you’ve probably never thought of, that of horse racing tipster.

It was Saturday’s Grand National that reminded me of my relatively brief sojourn with the sobriquet of Huntsman. How did I acquire the job? I came back into the office one Wednesday after lunch when the boss hailed me to his presence. “Got a job for you,” he said. “As of 3pm today you are our racing tipster.”

Simple as that. My qualification? Well, I was a serial loser at the betting shop across the street. There were no perks. No days out at the races with a good lunch and booze thrown in. Not even a free copy of the Sporting Chronicle.

Mid-afternoon the list of runners came chattering over the teleprinter and I had 20 minutes to make a selection in every race for the next day plus a nap, my best bet. It began well. I ran up a sequence of six successive winning naps. People started ringing the office asking if Huntsman had a horse going tomorrow.

I think, in their minds, readers saw me as a tweedy, well to do owner with an ear to the leading stables and not the reality, a youthful football reporter with an unprofitable hobby.

Huntsman continued to give his selections, mostly losers, and readers who had sunk their hard-earned cash in his tips no longer called the office.

A sobering lesson for those of you who follow the tipsters in your newspaper or online as it is these days.

And that’s why I didn’t tip you all the winner of the Grand National on Saturday. Huntsman and his tips have long since disappeared in ignominy. At least he enjoyed a brief but glorious summer when racing fans, for six nights, believed they had found a golden thread of easy money.

NUTS TO NOISE COMPLAINTS

SOME correspondence in my newspaper recently in which readers had cause to complain about noisy cinemagoers took me back to a memorable night at the flicks on holiday in Spain.

The posters said Brides of Dracula. So we went along. It was an open air cinema and it was packed with dozens of locals, each of them carrying a large packet of peanuts. Not to eat, it emerged later.

Talk about audience participation. They booed heartily every time Christopher Lee appeared on screen. Some even shook their fists as the evil vampire had his wicked and bloody way with a succession of nubile young ladies. The nuts? Oh, they chucked them at Dracula.

When Van Helsing finally drove a stake through old Drac’s heart he received a standing ovation — then they went round picking up their nuts. The noisiest — and the best — night I’ve ever spent at the pictures.