Criminal Justice Under The Microscope by Satpal Ram

The Criminal Justice System has become the focal point of increased criticism over recent years due to a rising Prison population, unrest within the Prison System, deaths in custody, racism, miscarriages of justice, Police corruption and the failure of successive Governments to tackle the root causes of crime. Criticism has been levelled at the Police, Judiciary and Prison Service adding more fuel to the debate on Law and Order.

The sheer number of people imprisoned in Britain today means that the United Kingdom imprisons more people than any of its European counterparts.
Statistical evidence suggests that the Prison population has risen by over 50% since the end of 1992 from 40,606 in December 1992 to 62,948 on the 10th October 1997. (The Penal System - Some Current Trends - Penal Affairs Consortium)

As more and more people are sent to Prison the strain on resources available has resulted in catastrophic consequences for a justice system which is already stretched to the limit. With an annual budget of over £2 billion a year (The Home Office Annual Report - Government Expenditure Plans - 1997 / 98 to 1999 / 2000), many believe that not enough is being done to alleviate the pressure on a Penal System which is already struggling to cope with a Prison population that has exceeded crisis levels.

Conditions in British Prisons today are such that many of its inhabitants are living in overcrowded buildings which were originally designed and built in Victorian times. Many Prisoners have to share a cell accommodation approximately 9ft X 6ft in which they are confined for up to 23 hours a day, having no access to integral sanitation. Faced with inhumane conditions, lack of hygiene and day to day squalor, many endure a nightmarish existence which is clearly reminiscent of a bygone era.

Over the last three decades the Prison System has seen a wave of revolt by Prisoners who, in protest against the conditions of their captivity, have vented their grievances at the system in a number of ways. Hunger strikes, rooftop protests and rioting have become a common feature in British Prisons today. The cost of running over-repressive regimes was clearly demonstrated in 1990 when inmates at Strangeways Prison in Manchester caused millions of pounds worth of damage and held authorities at bay for a total of 25 days. (Strangeways: a Serious Disturbance - Nicki Jameson and Eric Allison) The sheer ferocity of destruction caused was captured on live T.V. and beamed out around the world. This incident led to calls for major reforms within the system and subsequently resulted in a shift in penal thinking. Following the publication of the Woolf Report, the Government embarked on a vast refurbishment programme which promised an end to the barbaric practice of slopping out, as well as to ease overcrowding. Penal reform took a giant step forward which included the liberalisation of existing regimes. However, this trend was short-lived as the political climate again shifted from reform to revenge. As the emphasis moved away from rehabilitation to containment, Prison regimes became more austere and punitive. In September 1993 the then Home Secretary Michael Howard announced his plans to get tough on crime and tighten up what he termed as 'lax' Prison regimes in favour of the more 'austere' variety. (Guardian September 1993) Assisted along by sensationalist media coverage that portrayed Prisons as holiday camps, Michael Howard's policies came into effect reverting the Penal System back to a draconian past of repression.

As Prison regimes became more rigorous the suicide rate and cases of self-injury amongst prisoners rose dramatically. The whole issue of deaths in custody has caused further controversy by those

deaths which have occurred under suspicious circumstances. Public concern has increased as the scale of this problem becomes more evident by the sheer number of deaths recorded in England and Wales. In figures released by the Home Office (Richard Tilt 1996) there were 64 deaths within the Prison System in 1996. This amounts to an annual increase of between 6 and 8 per cent. Additionally the figures for 1996 reveal that there has been a significant increase in the number of deaths recorded in Police custody. Home Office figures show that there were 16 deaths in 1996 in comparison with 9 recorded in 1995. When these statistics are compared with the available data for the total number of deaths between 1985 to 1995 within the Prison System, it gives an indication of the sheer magnitude of this problem. In total there were 670 deaths recorded within this period of time. Similarly between 1990 and 1996 there were 83 deaths that occurred in Police custody. While a percentage of these deaths can be attributed to natural causes or suicide, i.e. where a Prisoner takes his or her own life due to feelings of hopelessness, despair and desolation which are often exacerbated by the conditions of their immediate environment, there are still those controversial deaths which occur as a direct result of excessive force being used at either the arrest stage or in Police or Prison custody. Inquests routinely return verdicts of suicide, natural causes, death by misadventure or open verdicts. Verdicts of unlawful killing have only been returned in a minority of cases. Case studies such as Barry Prosser who was murdered in 1980 in Birmingham's Winson Green Prison demonstrate that even when those responsible have been found culpable by a Coroners Court, the chances are that they will be absolved of any blame at any subsequent criminal trial.

Public concern has been further heightened by the fact that Black people represent a disproportionate number of those deaths that occur in custody. In 1996 alone, out of the 16 deaths in police custody 5 were Black. (Nicholas Long 1996) 'Inquest', a group which has monitored deaths in custody for the past 17 years and has actively campaigned for changes within the system, reported in 1996 to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that there is an alarming preponderance of Black people among those who die in custody. (Inquest 1996.) Attention has also been focussed at the role of the Crown Prosecution Service and Police Complaints Authority for their reluctance to prosecute any of those officers involved in causing death or any other serious injury. To date, no serving Police or Prison officer has been prosecuted of any offence despite overwhelming evidence that they have inflicted serious or grievous bodily harm which has subsequently resulted in another statistic of deaths in custody.

Racism within the Criminal Justice System has also been instrumental in criminalizing a disproportionate number of Black people who are in Prison today. Black people constitute 7 per cent of the population at large, as opposed to 18 per cent of the prison population. This reflects the level of bias that exists within the system. Evidence of further discrimination within the Criminal Justice System can be substantiated by analysing the official statistics for stop & searches carried out in the Capital in the year 1994/95; out of the 189,000 searches conducted by the Metropolitan Police 120,000 of them were young Black people. (Lee Jasper 1996) This in itself suggests a concerted systematic attempt at criminalizing Black people solely on the basis of preconceived prejudices which target specific sections of the community. Race not only determines who the Police arrest, but it is also a decisive factor that influences the way in which the courts view and treat Black defendants. For many Black people the reality is that when they are processed by the courts, they are more likely to be refused bail and remanded in custody. Black defendants also face longer sentences and are more inclined to be the victims of discrimination during the trial phase. In a majority of cases juries are from predominantly all white, middle class backgrounds and this can affect the outcome of a trial even before the evidence has been heard. Attitudes amongst the Judiciary have also given cause for concern. In 1982 Lord Denning, former Master of the Rolls, made the following comments about Law breaking within Britain's Black
community. "They came from Countries where bribery and graft are accepted - and where stealing is a virtue as long as you're not found out." (quoted in the Guardian, November 10 1992 - Racism and Criminology - Dee Cook and Barbara Hudson) Negative stereotyping such as this has done little to allay the fears of the Black community who view the System with suspicion and mistrust. This has been reinforced by the alarming number of miscarriages of justice that have come to light over recent years.

Over the last decade we've seen a spate of convictions that have been overturned by the Court of Appeal. Case studies such as the Birmingham 6, Guildford 4, Maguire 7, Judith Ward, Stefan Kiszko, Tottenham 3, Cardiff 3, Bridgewater 4 and numerous other convictions that were overturned following the disbanding of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad reveal a pattern of corruption at every level of the Criminal Justice System. Many of those released on appeal having served decades behind bars were the victims of covert Police malpractice. Confessions were fabricated or coerced from suspects.
Police officers also planted and manufactured evidence in a bid to clear up crimes where they were under pressure to secure convictions. In many cases evidence pointing to the innocence of an accused person was deliberately suppressed by the Police and Lawyers acting for the Crown Prosecution Service. Collusion by Judges was also common place to the extent that the Judiciary ensured in numerous judgements that the credibility of those officers remained intact.Up until now, the only convictions which have been overturned are those where Campaign groups have kept cases in the public eye and forced the System into conceding that a miscarriage of justice has occurred.

The integrity of the justice system has been further undermined by not only judicial impropriety but by the advocacy of defence lawyers. Many of those wrongfully convicted are often poorly represented in Court. Mistakes made during the course of a trial, or where the defence has been inadequately argued, has led to many innocent people being sent to Prison. While this should automatically constitute grounds for an appeal, the reality is that there is no form of redress available to those on the receiving end. For many of those serving lengthy sentences the appeals process has proved to be futile. At present there are no safeguards in existence to ensure that mistakes made by Lawyers can be rectified at a later stage.

On examining the root causes of miscarriages of justice further, a more prominent factor which has led to many wrongful convictions is the role played by the media. Adverse publicity before a trial, or inferences implying a person's guilt has affected the outcome of many trials. Juries are often influenced by what they read in the press and this can prejudice a defendant's chances of a fair hearing. In effect the scales are tipped in favour of the Prosecution from a very early stage in any investigation. This imbalance has been reinforced by the fact that the majority of people who come into contact with the Criminal Justice System are from socially deprived backgrounds in the first instance. Many of those who appear before the Courts end up in Prison due to a combination of factors, i.e. poverty, debt, unemployment, lack of education and other social conditions which have been frequently ignored by society at large. In essence, as the gap between rich and poor becomes more visible, politicians on both sides of the political divide have been guilty of socially engineering the criminalization of working class communities throughout the land.

Whether the Justice System continues to attain this level of attention depends entirely on its ability to implement fundamental change. At present the judicial process has been seriously undermined by the lack of accountability enjoyed by those in positions of authority. Ultimately it's going to take determined measures to restore its reputation.

Satpal Ram - Frankland 1998

1.The Penal System - Some Current Trends - Penal Affairs Consortium.

2.The Home Office Annual Report - Government Expenditure Plans - 1997/98 to 1999/2000.

3.Strangeways a Serious Disturbance - Nicki Jameson and Eric Allison.

4.Guardian - September 1993.

5.Taken from - Deaths of Offenders - The Hidden Side of Justice - Allison Liebling.

a.Changing Perspectives on Deaths of Prisoners - Richard Tilt 1996.

b.What Are the Lessons from Tragedies? - Nicholas Long 1996.

c.Annual Report by Inquest 1996.

6.Quoted in the Guardian - November 10 1992 - Racism and Criminology - Dee Cook and Barbara Hudson.

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