19 February 2010

Tory comedies of innocence...

The Bouphonia was a strange Attic festival, a Comedy of Innocence. An ox was sacrificed to Zeus at the Acropolis. Despite the public character of this ritual, he who wielded the knife or swung the axe engaged in a blameworthy, murderous deed to Athenian eyes. Expiating this wrong, the fatal weapon was taken to a court, where it was put on trial while its human accomplices denied responsibility. Ultimately, the blade itself was charged with having inflicted death, either being acquitted or tossed into the blue Mediterranean in forfeiture for its heinous act of ox-murder. This curious, Classical vignette occurred to me as I glanced through Tory and Labour amendments to the Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill, promising prison for all knife carriers. Both rituals concern themselves with responsibility and innocence, with blame and with victims. While the absurd qualities of the Greek enactment are obvious, and we can hear its ironic laughter, our contemporary sense of the complexities of responsibility answer in a more muted voice.

Labour want to install a presumption that the blade earn its bearer at least 6 months banged up with their chamber pots. (Although some Leithite wags ironise around the label of 'mandatory'.) The Swine Pursuivant, Richard Baker, cannot be terrifically chuffed that Iain Gray appears to have decided to nab his crony’s portfolio and is fronting this piece of law-and-order bunkum personally. The Tories, not to be outdone, bettered (sic) Labour’s penal promises, Baillie Bill Aitken suggesting that a two year period spent in jail would be just the thing for carrying knives.

Quoth the Baillie, “Labour's plans for a six month tariff for carrying a knife, which after early release would mean little more than a few weeks inside, are woefully inadequate … If you go out with a knife, you'll be going inside. Labour's eight years of failure paved the way for the SNP's soft-touch Scotland. We don't have any more time to waste and that is why I will be tabling our own amendment to the Bill.” This is the 'soft-touch Scotland' whose average daily prison population has increased by 31% in the last decade. I repeat, in 1999-00 the average daily population numbered 5,975 – including those on remand, untried persons, persons convicted but awaiting sentence. For last year, that average number was 7,835 souls – or 1,860 more prisoners than just 10 years ago. In their press release, Labour reiterate an incendiary quote from John Muir. “Anyone who disregards moves to toughen the sentencing laws on knife crime”, he submits “will be seen by the public as having victims’ blood on their hands.” Although I obviously entertain significant personal sympathy for Mr Muir, whose son Damian was stabbed to death, by any standards, this is a grotesque allegation. After all, we know that prison works, don’t we? That it does not contribute to a brutalisation of young men. That it affords its lesson and releases reformed souls.

This is pandering politics of the vengeful rump, which refuses to engage with the questions we are increasingly forced to engage with. The prison population is too high, unsustainable, unethical. Although I find the cost arguments among the least compelling reasons not to send folk to chokey – they are undeniable. Are we really willing to justify the economic expenditure and the social costs of vaulting rates of imprisonment, as a cathartic release? In a grand recent post by Ian Hamilton QC, entitled “Donald Dewar, Nicola Sturgeon and the wild, wild weemin”, profoundly relevant issues are explored. Highlighting the intellectual laziness of the ‘bang ‘em up’ case, Hamilton draws on his own shrieval experience to illuminate the brute reality of judicial decision-making – and the real limitations which even the wild-eyed exponents of incarceration Scotland must contend with. I find it infinitely depressing that the vision Scottish Labour and the Tories have for our nation is a panopticon, with a profusion of cells and of prisoners. I wanted to quote this section of Ian Hamilton’s late piece in particular.

“Nicola need have no fear of this mob. (Strange how everyone calls Nicola by her first name and no one knows who Mr Gray is.) In equiperating knife crime with fraud Mr Gray showed a lamentable lack of common sense. There is a world of difference between them. Crimes against the person with a deadly weapon require a prison sentence. Crimes of dishonesty are in a different category. If there is a breach of trust, if the sum is large, if the crime has been previously committed are relevant matters as is the length of time over which the crime took place. In these circumstances (and I am not discussing this case which is still sub judice) the sheriff needs all the help he can get. In asking for a non custodial sentence an MSP is pursuing government policy. Keep prison for serious crimes against the person. It costs £50,000 a year to keep someone in prison. Every penny is needed for two aircraft carriers and the son of Trident. Mr Gray should know these are Unionist priorities. If he doesn’t our sheriffs do.

I was once a sheriff and a weary job it is. I read many letters put up to me. They helped focus my mind. A sheriff is there to stand between justice and the screaming mob we saw in Holyrood, bent only on punishment. Punishment? Would that a sheriff’s job were so easy! There are so many other things to be taken into account. There are the side effects. Are there children to be considered? Will the accused lose his job? Will dependents become a burden on the State. Has there been a previous offence? Has restitution been made? What are the chances of reoffending? Will there be room in prison? The public perception of the crime comes at the very end of all these. No sheriff is there to please the public.”

Political revenge-fantasies aren’t costless. Despite John Muir’s statements (however understandable they are in his circumstance), we come to be stained in blood in ways that do not come with the direct pointedness of a knife – and its easy, fatal causality. The black pathos of rampant incarceration invades the airy irresponsibility affected by these comedians of innocence, these Tory and Labour politicians whose idea of penality is a vaulted pit, with no bottom, no costs and no consequences.

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