Which side of the line are you on?

By Mark Leech
Editor: The Prisons Handbook

Well, which side of the line are you on?

People who assault police officers should face a “two strikes” system that results in a mandatory jail sentence for a second offence, Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Britain’s most senior officer, has said.

My question is: why?

As someone who knows a thing or two about crime and prisons let me ask this: why would we allow someone to land a second punch when the first one was bad enough?

If we really want to protect our police and prison officers – the latter of whom suffered 10,311 assaults in the 12 months to March 2019, up 15% from the previous year, a record high figure and one that in the latest quarter alone rose by a further 4% – then let’s get serious.

I know from personal, lamentable, experience, that anything less than a jail sentence is seen as ‘getting off’.

Trust me when I say this: custody counts – the swiftness with which it is delivered it absolutely vital – but let me be absolutely clear about this too.

We send far too many people to prison, many for the wrong reasons, spreading a wide criminal net, catching a lot of small fish, and giving those sentences in some cases that are frankly wrong – the homeless man, who lives in a tent, who has mental health issues and who, according to the judge who sentenced him to six months for contempt yesterday, received negligent professional legal representation, is a classic example of that.

But when it comes to attacking police or prison officers we need to see these offences in a completely different category of crime.

So if you are charged with attacking an Emergency Service Worker once, never mind twice, the presumption at first hearing should be against bail – the colleagues of police officers hospitalised one night, should not see the person they charged with the offence out on the streets the very next day.

I know some will say that goes against the presumption of innocence – but no it doesn’t, because the same argument applies equally to everyone charged with serious offences who are denied bail – the problem is magistrates and judges do not see attacks on Emergency Workers as serious offences; and they must be made to do so.

On conviction, an immediate custodial sentence should also be the presumption too – and with an Extended Sentence seen as the norm.

An Extended Sentence moves the release at the halfway point of a sentence to the two-thirds point, with release then dependent on the Parole Board, and it comes with an extended period of post-release supervision, balancing support with a vitally important standing of the ground to make clear such offences are intolerable and must be dealt with as such.

I am totally against mandatory sentences, they allow politicians to pass sentences and not judges, and that isn’t what I recognise as justice – but clearly this idea of you go to jail for the second police assault diminishes the seriousness of these crimes rather than elevates them to the level of seriousness that they rightly deserve.

What’s more, if we are not to simply transfer the violence against Emergency Workers from pavement to prison, then the way we deal with those who attack prison officers must be equally robust – justice needs to be as swift in prison as it needs to be on the streets – but the truth is that it isn’t.

Far too often the CPS refuse to proceed on prison officer assaults because they do not see the point of prosecuting someone and sending them to prison when they’re already there; it’s a major miscalculation and a green light to continue.

Drugs are awash in our jails, organised by gangs corrupt who inexperienced staff, while individuals prey on their own so-called loved ones who are themselves then corrupted to bring drugs in before being caught and then jailed themselves; if you genuinely love and care about someone, you just don’t put them in that position – that’s not a relationship, its cowardly, selfish, bullying.

Violence in prisons is at a record high, and don’t believe all the hype surrounding the recent figures on the ’10 Prisons Project’ – yes they do show promising results, but a true examination of them shows it was a real mixed bag of results and not the ‘we’ve turned a corner’ gloss put on it that some would have you believe – violence in some of those 10 prisons actually increased.

We need much more investment in violence reduction strategies inside our prisons, every prison has a violence reduction strategy but in Prison Inspectorate Report after Report I see criticisms that it is simply not being delivered nor given the importance that it deserves.

We have anger management courses in prisons for offenders, but places on them are thin on the ground, with neither the cash nor the trained staff are in place to deliver them.

We need airport-style security scanners at the front gate of every prison in the country – the Prime Minister will tell you that this is happening, I can tell you they haven’t even been ordered, and there is no bidding process either for their purchase or installation underway, nor any staff training programme in train for their operation either.

The police and prison officers are our first and last line of defence – an attack on them is an attack on everyone and we should see it as such and respond in a fair, just but absolutely robust way.

As Boris would say: “No If’s; No But’s”.

Either attacks on Emergency Workers are serious offences, or they’re not; which side of the line are you on?

www.markleech.com @prisonsorguk