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Even a cynic like me may have to accept ‘smart’ justice isn’t soft

When you have spent your professional life writing about the worst things humans can do to each other it’s difficult to shake off long-held opinions that people are just bad to the bone and deserve everything they get in terms of punishment.

I’ve been quite scathing over the years in my school of thought that someone’s background has shaped their life choices and decisions.

My outlook has mostly been borne out of dealing with victims and their families and seeing time and again a justice system that chews them up and spits them out while wrapping arms around the perpetrator.

I believe, and nothing will dissuade me from this view, that some people are just plain evil and no amount of rehabilitation will change them. I’m obviously talking about murderers, rapists and child abusers.

But this week, I was again forced to re-evaluate my opinions on crime and punishment due to two very different reasons. Both involving young people.

The first was a national campaign on knife crime where youngsters are being encouraged to anonymously alert the authorities about friends they know are carrying weapons.

And the second was the news judges will be asked to consider rehabilitation for those under the age of 25 who commit crimes rather than sending them to prison.

The reasoning behind this thinking is scientific, said The Scottish Sentencing Council. The human brain is not fully developed below that age, they said.

A national campaign on knife crime encourages youngsters to anonymously alert the authorities about friends they know are carrying weapons

Hang on a minute … by that reasoning, why do we allow teenagers to join the Army? To get married? If our brains aren’t mature enough at 18 to decide we’re joining the infantry to potentially be sent to our deaths in armed conflict then why on earth are we allowing kids to make those decisions? This makes no sense and is a pretty poor argument to win the public round to your thinking.

Should someone who, for example, repeatedly robs houses at the age of 17 be sent to rehab classes instead of being sent to prison?

Because said 17-year-old told the court his mammy and daddy are drug addicts and all he knows is violence and chaos, and nicking stuff from other people is as natural to him as blowing our noses is to law-abiding citizens.

Which led to me thinking about the “Fearless” campaign – and the massive strides Scotland has taken in stemming the tide of knife crime among young people in the country.

This is mostly down to the view that stabbings and gang-related violence are public-health issues and not just policing issues.

Holistic approaches to violence were adopted – positive role models, projects and education all played a part in eliminating Glasgow’s “murder capital of Europe” tag.

The more I thought about it the more I considered that perhaps, while their “scientific” argument is still naff, there are grounds for rehabilitating under-25s who commit minor crimes instead of throwing them to the wolves in prison.

I spoke to *Joe*, a 20-year-old who has carried knives and repeatedly abused alcohol and drugs while carrying out robberies and
“enforcement” for criminal gangs.

He said: “I’ve been in jail about 10 times. I think I’ve spent most of my life in and out of secure units and young offenders. My dad is in Barlinnie, my mum is dead and I was brought up by my aunties and foster parents. I didn’t have a proper home.

“Getting involved in bevvying and drugs was my way of life but I was miserable. I don’t want to die but if I didn’t stop what I was doing then that was gonnae happen. Either drugs or someone was going to do me in.

“Now I’m off the drugs and I’m doing a college course. I have my own flat and a social worker and I’ve not done anything illegal in over a year.

“Once I get my qualifications I’ll have a trade. None of this would be happening if I kept getting sent to Polmont. I’ve got a chance to do something better with my life.”

Then I spoke to Lynn Burns, whose 22-year-old son Sam was stabbed to death at a party in 2013 by his friend. I asked Lynn what she thought and her reply both stunned and shamed me.

She said: “Public safety is paramount but can we and should we lock everyone up? I know it feels counterintuitive but I still feel that a bad, bad deed doesn’t necessarily mean a bad, bad person…with some notable exceptions.

“Sam’s murder was ordinary in some respects and unusual in others.”

After listening to them, this cynical crime hack is not ashamed to admit that maybe “smart” justice in some cases is not “soft” justice after all.

Lynn Burns' 22-year-old son Sam was stabbed to death at a party in 2013 by his friend
Lynn Burns’ 22-year-old son Sam was stabbed to death at a party in 2013 by his friend

From a reader

This from a reader in the post: “Hey Jane, I’m a prisoner in XYZ and I wanted you to know, hen, that we all read your bit in the paper every week and hope we get a mention.

“We’ve got wee bets going on who’s next. Gies a mention soon, ma wee doll so I can win. Nae pressure likes.”

Educate those tackling violence

Violence against women should be given as much priority as terrorism, according to a police watchdog report commissioned by Home Secretary Priti Patel in the wake of the Sarah Everard murder.

And the report goes on to confirm something we all already knew – there is an epidemic of violence against female victims in
the UK.

Problems, unevenness and inconsistencies were found in the police response to such offences.

The police watchdog report comes in the wake of the Sarah Everard murder
The police watchdog report comes in the wake of the Sarah Everard murder

We can only hope this damning report drives action and isn’t just a box-ticking exercise to quell and silence the growing numbers
of women speaking out and seeking action.

Disappointing then that the report fails to mention or address the fact Sarah was murdered by a police officer or that women at a vigil for Sarah were manhandled by some officers.

Perhaps educating those tackling violence on women needs to start a little closer to home first.

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