Friday, 8 May 2015

The Wages of Sin - Making Criminals Pay?



It is difficult indeed to elicit much outrage or public sympathy at the news that one of Mr Grayling’s last acts in office was to introduce a ‘menu’ of court charges for convicted defendants.  On the face of it most would think it perfectly reasonable that those convicted of criminal offences should pay a contribution towards the costs of administering the criminal justice system.  However this is a classic example of where political PR and grim reality come into direct conflict.

Most criminals are poor people.  Poor people don’t have much money and criminal poor people are disinclined to hand over such money as they have.  Compelling criminal poor people to hand over money costs money and if the ultimate sanction of imprisonment is deployed it costs an enormous amount of money, almost always vastly more than the sum that is owing.  The effect of all of this is that any sensible person hesitates before imposing financial obligations upon defendants, even more so when they are imprisoned the result of which, of course, is that they are unable to earn any money to discharge their financial obligations.
In 2007 the then Government introduced the Victim Surcharge a statutory levy applied at sentence in all cases on a sliding scale:

£15 Conditional Discharge
£20-£120 Fine
£60 Community Sentence
£80 6 months or less custody or Suspended Sentence less than 6 months
£100 6 months to 2 years custody or Suspended Sentence between 6 months and 1 year
£120 More than 2 years custody 

Many judges in my experience affect ignorance of which sum applies because the whole thing smacks of issuing a parking ticket and in a serious case can seem a farcical and demeaning exercise.  However the absurdity of the Victim Surcharge, never more prominent than when applied in relation to ‘victimless’ offences, pales into insignificance when set against the Criminal Courts Charge: ( https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/336085/fact-sheet-criminal-courts-charge.pdf )
This obligatory charge must be imposed by all courts when a case ends adversely to a defendant, from the magistrates’ court to the Court of Appeal.  Interestingly it does not seem to apply to unsuccessful appeals to the Supreme Court, possibly a tacit acknowledgement by those responsible of the utter indignity of the highest court in the land charging the defendant a Ton or a Monkey for having the temerity to bother them.
I have seen some embarrassing and shaming scenes in court but few more excruciating than a Lay Bench at Harlow magistrates’ court ordering a trio of likely lads in the dock to jump and down to hear if they had any coins on them to bump up the sum they would pay on the spot towards the fine imposed on them.  Of course this kind of thing is popular with some but populism does not mean something is right.

Increasingly judge’s sentencing remarks are released in full following sentence in the most serious of cases.  Devastating homicide cases resulting in whole life sentences for the defendant and ruined lives for the bereaved will now conclude with the judge ordering the defendant to pay £1,200 towards the expense of trying him.

In a tiny concession to realism there is of course a get out for impecunious criminals as the Criminal Courts Charge states:
‘If after 2 years you have: made best efforts to keep up with the payment terms of any other financial impositions and the criminal courts charge and; you have not been convicted of any other criminal offences during that period you may apply to the magistrates’ court for consideration to write off the criminal courts charge.’

Accordingly it will not be long before a whole life tariff murderer gets a day out of prison to waste the time of the magistrates and public money for the hearing in order to state the obvious, which is that being banged up was something of an obstacle to finding the readies to discharge the Order.  It is little exaggeration to imagine a future where there will be meters on police cars and cell tariffs at Booking In.
Sentencing is a solemn affair and rightly so.  It is perhaps the point at which the dignity of justice must most vigorously be preserved.  Turning judges into traffic wardens demeans victims, the defendant, judges and justice itself.  These charges are wrong in principle and will be costly in practice.

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