Prison doesn't work, according to Plymouth's new top judge Paul Darlow
THE city's new top judge has said that prison sentences are failing to combat crime.
Speaking for the first time since becoming resident judge at Plymouth Crown Court, His Honour Judge Paul Darlow said: "Custody, particularly when applied to short-term periods, has been shown to be expensive and largely ineffectual in preventing re-offending.
"In the vast majority of cases, a community order tailored to ensure clear punishment and payback to victims and society can be a robust and effective sentence."
He is calling for tougher community punishments – including confiscating cars and tracking 'tagged' offenders' every move by satellite.
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Judge Darlow backed moves towards making curfews "truly restrictive of liberty".
Measures could involve extending their hours and lengths – and using GPS technology to pinpoint an offenders' exact whereabouts.
He also called for unpaid work requirements for jobless criminals – currently less than an hour a day – to mirror a traditional working week.
Confiscating cars or driving licenses even in cases not involving vehicles would provide a "massive disincentive" to committing crimes, Judge Darlow said.
He added that "hitting an offender in the pocket" with fines and other legal bills was also effective.
"It is remarkable how many offenders plead poverty when it comes to sentence for an offence when, at the time it was committed, they apparently had the funds to buy and consume industrial quantities of alcohol and sometimes drugs," he said.
Judge Darlow, who has been a regular judge in the city for several years, told The Herald how drug and alcohol abuse – as well as "disenfranchisement" – were Plymouth's biggest social problems.
"The court will only ever be a blunt instrument or a long stop in helping to contain major social problems," he said. "The seeds of the problem take root much earlier."
Although Judge Darlow criticised clubland for fuelling early hours crime, he stopped short of blaming 24-hour drinking laws.
"It has much more to do with the day of the week and the hours, say, 8pm and 3am, when clubs empty out," he said. "I do think that some clubs have a great deal to answer for in continuing to serve drinks to those who should not be served but who are then pushed out onto the street to become the community's problem."
Judge Darlow took over from Judge Francis Gilbert QC last month, amid sweeping Government cuts.
"We share some of the same frustrations of delays resulting from the waste or non-use of court time," he conceded. "These are difficult and interesting times."
JUDGE DARLOW ON CUSTODY
CUSTODY, particularly when applied to short-term periods has been shown to be expensive and largely ineffectual in preventing re-offending.
It does serve a limited purpose in keeping some offenders out of circulation for short periods of time – sometimes very short indeed if time has been spent on remand in custody prior to sentencing.
However, the other side of the coin is the public perception of community orders as focussing on the rehabilitation and not the punishment of the offender. Indeed many community orders only contain supervision.
I accept that supervision can be invaluable in requiring an offender to attend Probation when told to do so – in itself placing some limited demand on an offender who has never before had to attend for appointments – and compelling them to face up to their behaviours and its consequences. I also accept that in certain circumstances, for example, for offenders with mental health problems, supervision may be the only fair and workable disposal.
However, in the vast majority of cases, a community order tailored to ensure clear punishment and payback to victims and society can be a robust and effective sentence for some offenders, and would go some way in restoring the public’s confidence in community sentences.
The punitive element of a community sentence should and can consist of some or all of the following:
Electronically monitored curfew
Not just the ‘standard’ order keeping an offender in at night from 7pm-7am but one that keeps the offender in a given location at various times of day and away from, for example, shopping centres, gathering points for peer groups etc. If made for a series of short periods in a day, the curfew order may effectively prevent travel to certain relevant destinations simply because there would not be enough time to get there and back between curfew times.
I am in favour of the extension of the present 12 hour per day maximum to one of 16 hours and an extension of the maximum six months to one of 12 months.
The present [curfew] technology is based on RF [radio frequency] technology: the equipment /tag sends a signal to, usually, a home monitoring unit.
This is excellent for tracking the movements of an offender to the extent that it tells you whether an offender is or is not at a specific address.
But satellite tracking using GPS or GSM technology would be even more efficient. It would tell you at any one time where an offender actually is.
If an imaginatively-structured curfew is combined with other requirements – for example community payback, attending for drug testing etc - the package can be made to be truly restrictive of liberty and therefore punitive.
Community payback (unpaid work requirement or community service order)
Unemployed offenders sentenced to community payback are, by and large, presently required to work for only six hours per week.
Why so little per week? I would support any proposal that would require an offender to work more intensively in a way that more closely replicates a normal working day and week.
A community payback order should require an offender to arrive for work at the start of a working day, to work through that day and to repeat the process on subsequent days until the order was completed.
Confiscation of cars
There are existing powers to do this, provided the car has been used in connection with the crime.
Why should this not happen in any context, whether as a stand-alone punishment or to meet an order for compensation, costs or a fine?
Obviously it must be tempered to the circumstances; I am not advocating such a course where the vehicle is essential to a job or the offender lives in a rural location with little or no public transport.
Disqualification from driving. (Presently only used for motoring offences)
As a stand-alone penalty unrelated to how an offender actually drives, it would I think prove to be a massive disincentive to those who might otherwise feel tempted to indulge in other forms of crime.
The ability or permission to drive a car on a public road should be seen a privilege and not a right.
Normally fines are used as a stand-alone penalty and infrequently used as part of a community order.
Hitting an offender in the pocket, whether by way of compensation to the victim, costs (to the taxpayer) or fines (again to the public coffers) would prove a punitive element in any community order.
I acknowledge fines need to be set at the right level; if too low, they represent no punishment at all, if too high you are setting an offender up to fail.
In this context, it is remarkable how many offenders plead poverty when it comes to sentence for an offence when, at the time it was committed, they apparently had the funds to buy and consume industrial quantities of alcohol and sometimes drugs in the pubs and clubs of Plymouth.
Judge Darlow has asked us to point out that the views he outlines here are his own and should not be taken as representative of any other bodies.
JUDGE PAUL DARLOW: THE INTERVIEW
You have been a regular judge at Plymouth Crown Court for some years. What difference has it made to you becoming the new resident judge?
It has made my working day considerably harder and longer. Usually I am the first to arrive at court and am often the last to leave. Outside of court sitting, I find there are numerous other things that need to be done, some regular, some one-off . I think it has increased my workload by about 30 per cent.
Are your views and priorities different from your predecessor, Judge Gilbert, and in what ways?
No, fundamentally they are not. Our methods may be different. Our priorities are very much the same; he, like me, was concerned to deliver the best possible service to the public. We share some of the same frustrations of delays resulting from the waste or non-use of court time. These are difficult and interesting times; as a result of cuts and reorganisations a new team of managers, listing officers, and clerks has been put together. I am just a member of that team (albeit to some the public face of it) to deliver a service; in some respects the provision of a court service to the public is a constant process of trial and modification and fine-tuning to try and reach the best result. So things that may have happened in Judge Gilbert’s day may now be scheduled differently. For example, I aim to give the process of trial a priority in the day’s list. Once a trial is under way I will try to ensure it starts at the head of a day’s business on successive days. Previously, other matters may be put in the daily list ahead of the trial to be resumed (breaches of community orders, drug review hearings, sentences etc) with the result that a jury and witnesses in a trial may be kept waiting for hours before their case is resumed; this is frustrating and frankly discourteous to witnesses (for prosecution and defence) and to jurors who have given up their time from homes and jobs to sit on juries. If there are other matters that need to be dealt with, they will be.
What changes would you like to see to sentencing policy and guidelines?
I think the introduction of guidelines has proved to be an excellent leveller in terms of achieving a consistency of result. It benefits all concerned and interested in the criminal justice system (whether prosecution, defence or simply the public) to know the parameters within which any judge is obliged to work. If he chooses not to do so, he/she must spell out the specific reasons why. I would like to see discussion and informed consideration of a power in some cases to pass an enhanced sentence where the evidence is overwhelming and a defence to a charge brought has, from the outset, been doomed to fail. These are the sorts of cases that once the trial has been listed often collapse on the day of trial.
What changes would you like to see to the criminal justice system generally?
This is a difficult one. For most sorts of trials I am very much in favour of trial by jury. Those complicated cases of fraud involving thousands of pages of statements and exhibits are the exception. In this country we run an adversarial system, where one side accuses another, as opposed to an inquisitorial one, where the emphasis is much more directed to finding out the truth of what happened. The former is all well and good where there is an equality of arms and each side is represented by advocates of comparable abilities. This is not always so. It is as distressing to see a case poorly prosecuted as it is to see it weakly defended. So I would like to see a change where advocates – for either side – are required to achieve a quality assured standard. These steps are in hand.
What do you feel are the major social problems facing Plymouth, as reflected by the court?
Those derived from an addiction to or misuse of drugs and alcohol. And disenfranchisement. All of these tend to overlap each other. Unless there is a positive incentive on any one to ‘belong’ to the community in which they live, whether the incentive takes the form of pride in a job, a fulfilling relationship, parenthood, membership of an extended caring family team or group (but not a similarly disenfranchised gang), there is no incentive to abide by the same rules as the majority of the community. The court will only ever be a blunt instrument or a long stop in helping to contain major social problems; the seeds of the problem take root much earlier.
You’ve been known to discard your wig in hot weather. Would you like to see judges and barristers in suits rather than wigs and gowns?
I think wigs are an anachronism. I understand the argument advanced by those who want to keep them: they are said to depersonalise the wearer and lend a dignity to the proceedings. However, I think that dignity can be maintained with gowns, wing collars and tabs. I would not be in favour of simply wearing suits. In the meantime, if the courts were properly air-conditioned I would adhere to wearing the wig until I was told I could dispense with it!
How is technology affecting the operation of the courts and are there any further advances you would like to see, eg more use of video link?
There are so many more ways in which technology could be used to make courts operate more efficiently. On any given day, prison vans are trundling around the country, sometimes covering very great distances indeed, for hearings that may last only minutes and could easily be disposed of by video link.
What are your views on 24-hour drink licences? Has it led to a more relaxed cafe culture or more binge drinking?
I do not think that the problem of binge drinking is caused by 24-hour drinking licences. It has much more to do with the day of the week and the hours between, say, 8pm and 3am when clubs empty out. I do think that some clubs have a great deal to answer for in continuing to serve drinks to those who should not be served but who are then pushed out onto the street to become the community’s problem.
How do you relax away from the pressure of the Crown Court?
Walking with my family, friends and dog, going out on the water with my Plymouth Pilot boat with my dog, surfing (well, belly-boarding actually!), and by taking what advantages I can of the health I am lucky to enjoy at the moment. You just can’t beat the West Country for the opportunity to do all of these things.