Issues of criminal justice

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

Doreen Lawrence (left), mother of Stephen Lawrence, during the memorial service in London on the 10th anniversary of his murder, on April 22. - JOHN STILLWELL/ AP

Doreen Lawrence (left), mother of Stephen Lawrence, during the memorial service in London on the 10th anniversary of his murder, on April 22. - JOHN STILLWELL/ AP

The debate on the criminal justice system is unlikely to yield definite conclusions, but it should go on if persons in decision-making positions are to be stopped from indulging in excesses.

JUST as its counterparts in many other countries, the British press allots disproportionately generous space to crime. Its near obsession with human deviance can intimidate a visitor into believing that the United Kingdom is too crime-infested for anyone to contemplate a holiday. As a more seasoned observer of the scene for nearly three decades, I am more amused rather than overawed by this excessive attention to Fagin and his ilk portrayed by Dickens so vividly in Oliver Twist nearly two centuries ago.

I am more than convinced that London is safer than many other cities in the world, and do not take much notice of the odd shooting or car robbery that is often reported with a sensational touch. I go about my business casually and tend to ignore the screaming Metropolitan Police car that whizzes past me. Incidentally, according to one report, police cars rushing to crime scenes are needlessly reckless and result in many avoidable police casualties. Except in the case of an ongoing riot, seldom does police intervention at such speed help anybody. Police officers in the field will hardly agree with me. Many young officers enjoy the thrill of travelling at breakneck speed to chase an offender and will not like to be deprived of such excitement in what is otherwise a trying and mundane calling.

Two happenings in the area of criminal justice received considerable media coverage in the U.K. recently. The first is the amnesty announced by the police to those turning in illegally held firearms. This one-month amnesty ended on April 30. It is said that nearly 20,000 weapons were surrendered all over the country. In London alone, there were more than 1,000 cases of surrender. In a similar amnesty in 1996, the police received 23,000 weapons and 700,000 rounds of ammunition. But, interestingly, in the really bad areas, which had reported high rates of gun-related violence in the past, the surrender rate was just nominal. This suggests that a large number of guns still remain underground. It will, therefore, be facile to expect a sharp drop in gun-related crimes, the major objective of the whole scheme of amnesty.

It will be interesting to speculate what response such a move will receive in India. One thing is sure. We have lots of unlicensed weapons, especially the crude home-made ones. The political class in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar adores them as these come in handy to settle personal scores. Governments have, therefore, not shown much interest in chasing illegal weapon holders. Police action to immobilise such weapons is naturally sporadic and symbolic.

APRIL 22 was the 10th anniversary of the murder in London of an 18 year-old black youth, Stephen Lawrence, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was stabbed to death by five white hoodlums who had no motive except hatred for those who were of a different skin colour. The Metropolitan Police could not collect enough evidence to proceed against the five suspects. But private initiatives took the matter to the court, which discharged two at the committal stage and acquitted the other three after trial. There was an uproar among blacks who believed that the Met had bungled in the matter as they were racist. The Police Complaints Authority (PCA) directed an investigation by the Kent Police who, without turning down the Met's findings, roundly criticised many aspects of the police investigation.

Following this, in July 1997, four years after the murder, the Home Secretary asked for a detailed probe by Sir William Macpherson, a former High Court Judge. The Macpherson Report of February 1999 was categorical that the Met investigation was "flawed" and that racism had become institutionalised in the force. (" The investigation was marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers.") It came out with several recommendations on how to sensitise the police to minorities' feelings. The Met has taken several steps since then to remedy the serious attitudinal shortcoming in a force that otherwise has a reputation for honest and dedicated work.

Television debates on the 10th anniversary nevertheless revealed that the wound had not yet healed. Many black community leaders were unequivocal that the police had not changed enough. But those in the force believe that so much has been done in terms of recruitment and training and strict supervision that the Stephen Lawrence incident will not repeat itself. They cite the fact that 15 per cent of the current recruits at the Hendon Police College are from the black and Asian communities.

The debate is significant for us in the context of many horrendous communal riots, including Gujarat 2002, that have tarnished the image of the police. It is easy for us to sweep all criticism under the carpet and say that the police were unbiased during these unforgivable incidents of insanity. I do not at the same time subscribe to the theory that policemen on such occasions act under the influence of their own narrow religious bigotry. What we are concerned about here is that some among those who control and drive the police should free themselves from prejudices, which undermine police neutrality and objectivity. Such enlightenment was by all accounts not seen in Gujarat, and possibly will not be for many decades, not only in Gujarat but elsewhere in the country as well.

TALKING of the British media's preoccupation with crime, interestingly, the British Crime Survey, modelled after the National Crime Survey (NCS) of the United States, reports that during the last quarter of 2002 there was a 9 per cent fall in crimes against adults. This drop included 13 per cent less household crimes. Although violent crime had levelled off, violence against individuals has increased slightly. Also, there was no perceptible fall in the fear of crime. The Metropolitan Police is less equivocal when they say that during the last three months of 2002, street crime in London had fallen to 14,274 as against 19,260 in the same period of the previous year. It also claims an encouraging 25 per cent decline in gun-related crime in London.

Crime statistics are dubious and they satisfy only the government and the police. The common man is hardly impressed as he seriously believes that such figures are manipulated to satisfy the needs of the executive. The criticism, though exaggerated at times, is very often valid. Policemen alone are not to be blamed for this exercise at deception. All the players in the game are equally to blame. This is one of the strands of thought that comes out very well in a brilliantly written book that I stumbled upon in an Oxford Street bookshop the other day. A Brief History of Crime: The decline of Order, Justice and Liberty in England (Atlantic Books, London,2003) is by Peter Hitchens, a commentator and columnist for The Mail on Sunday. It is a fascinating book.

Hitchens examines the entire gamut of criminal justice system and gives vignettes of the centuries old debate on several critical issues, including the wisdom of retaining the capital sentence. He begins with a devastating introduction: "Much of today's debate is based on mistaken beliefs, misunderstood or massaged figures and cheap slogans." The burden of his song is that the executive has tinkered so much with the system that it has become ineffective and almost castrated. In Hitchens' view, the "single most serious mistake" of modern democracies is to believe that criminal behaviour can be altered by a more benign and reformatory attitude towards criminals. Such perception of crime is based on the assumption that it is economic deprivation that drives people to crime. I am inclined to agree with Hitchens that poverty is not the sole cause of crime. From what we have seen in the corporate world in the U.S. in the past few years, we are convinced that it is greed and not want that often leads to deplorable criminal conduct. Hitchens is appalled that the modern state, with its socialist pretensions, instead of being severe on the offender and deterring him through stiff penalties, tends to concentrate on preaching to the potential victim as to how he should protect himself against crime ("Theft is treated as an uncontrollable force of nature, like the wind and rain, against which we must shelter ourselves."). Here he bemoans the fact that all debate on prisons is only about how to improve holding conditions inside. He almost hints at making these conditions harsher so that the objective of penalty to punish and deter a criminal from relapsing into illegal conduct is achieved. I am sure that many modern penologists and criminal justice policy-makers will be scandalised by this argument. Interestingly, elsewhere in the book, Hitchens refers to the volte-face effected by Lord Woolf, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales on the subject. Woolf, in a reformatory stance, was always for judges sending more and more offenders to "rigorous" community projects than to regular jails. Ironically, when confronted with the new menace of mobile telephone thefts, he is reported to have recently suggested that such thieves should be awarded long prison sentences.

If this is true, it highlights the dilemma faced by the judiciary. The latter is under continual state pressure to ease prison overcrowding by sending convicts to monitored sentences outside the prison environment. At the same time, public opinion demands deterrent punishment for those guilty of breaking the law and causing inconvenience to society. The debate between those holding the two competing points of view can never be resolved.

THE gravamen of Hitchens' charge against the modern "elite State" is that it has made serious inroads into the freedom of the respectable segments of our society. Do we not see this happening to us every day at airports, when we are humiliated into subjecting ourselves to bodily checks, an obnoxious exercise that we would have rebelled against as indecent and unhygienic only a few years ago? We have had to put up with this intrusion in privacy rather stoically all because of a handful of maniacs who derive sadistic pleasure out of misguided philosophies by overturning aircraft at will. In essence this means more and more good and responsible citizens will be burdened with a rigorous code of conduct just because a few ruffians are out to create trouble at will and at places of their choice in a manner that suits their skill. Right through his discourse, Hitchens, therefore, pleads for preventive policing that will obviate the need for harsh reactive policing, which tramples on individual freedoms.

Hitchens is very much for capital sentence and believes that the Liberal case against such punishment is weak and not justified by the continued rise in violence all over the world, and especially in England. If we have fewer deaths from violence, it is because of better medical attention to given to victims of such violence, rather than reduced inclination to cause lethal bodily injury. He is firmly of the view that it has become politically correct to oppose death penalty and scoff at those who want its retention. I am not inclined to agree with Hitchens. In my view, the only argument that can sustain capital punishment is its supposed deterrence of potential murderers. Hitchens himself concedes that it has not had this effect. This is compounded by growing evidence of gross errors in prosecution cases that have led to colossal miscarriage of justice. In the U.S., the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) as evidence has brought to light the innocence of many convicts in the death row. This is one argument in favour of abolishing capital sentence that is hard to controvert.

Hitchen has strong views on gun control (criminals will any way procure guns to commit crime) and jury trial (any effort to abolish it is a "menace to liberty"). I am impressed by his argument that modern courts are heavily weighted against the arraigned person. Somehow the feeling has gained ground that the judge and the victim are on the same side, making the setting appear "totalitarian". The scene is made worse by some public prosecutors demanding a ` heavy sentence' for the accused, forgetting for a moment that they are court officials invested with the sole responsibility of ferreting out facts to be placed before the court to enable it to arrive at the right conclusion on the guilt or innocence of the accused. In Hitchens' estimate a state that sanctifies this adversarial arrangement does not have an independent judiciary. This may be an extreme point of view. But the logic is unassailable if we proclaim ourselves to be followers of the English jurisprudence that sets much score by fair trial and the firm adherence to principles of natural justice.

The debate will go on. Is criminal behaviour caused by economic deprivation or is it attributable to a genetic disposition? Is capital sentence just and fair? Is it true that it does not deter a potential murderer? These and allied matters are a popular subject for discussion in public forums and law colleges. The debate may appear futile as it produces strong and diametrically opposite responses and there is no one correct answer. Nevertheless it should go on if those in decision-making positions are to be prevented from indulging in excesses. Towards objective contributions such as those of Hitchens' are most welcome and agreeable.

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