Only the violent should go to jail

12th December 2001

HERE is a story of two cases before the courts in Dublin recently.

In the first case, a man is found guilty of defrauding the banks of £20,000. He did so by forging cheques which he would then present at cash desks in banks around the city and obtain cash in return. The man had 11 previous convictions for similar fraud.

No evidence was heard in court that the man used violence or threats in the course of his crimes and no such charges were pressed against him. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

In the second case, a man is found guilty of organising a knife attack on a teenage girl which left her scarred for life. He is also found guilty of robbing and badly beating a tourist on the street. The tourist was threatened with a syringe, repeatedly kicked in the head and robbed while the man stood on his neck. This man has 24 previous convictions for larceny, assault and possession of a firearm.

He was sentenced to four years in prison. (The woman whom he had directed to carry out the knife attack received a two year suspended sentence.)

Now it’s the cheapest journalism in the world to get two different cases, put them together and be outraged.

But these judgements are part of a view of the world which equates attacks on property with attacks on people. They are nothing of the sort.

These judgements stem also from the belief that prison is primarily a place of punishment. It shouldn’t be. Prison should be a place to put people who are a danger to others. Period.

If you simply want to punish people then prison is a bad place to do it. It costs a fortune. It inducts criminals into the community of criminals from whence their skills can be perfected and contacts can be widened. It does absolutely nothing for the victims or the wider community. It is does very little to dissuade criminals from their wicked ways – 70% re-offend. It masks the deeper problems such as drug abuse, psychiatric problems or social dysfunction. It is reserved for poor people.

The problem seems to be finding suitable punishments for such people. Well, if you give me a half hour I could come up with a suitable list of reparation, solid work, curfews, humiliation, detox, counselling, education, internal exile and low-level misery that offenders could be subjected to. Anything but prison.

Above all, the distinction between violence and all other offences should be separated once and for all. We need now, especially in the wake of the Guido Nasi disaster, to renew this society’s abhorrence of violence. This means all violence from domestic violence to state violence to Saturday night violence.

There’s a lot of anger about, plenty of fuel for taking it out on your fellow human. We need to acknowledge the difference between slashing someone with a knife and signing a dodgy cheque.

As well as that….

Judges from a different planet

I MUST be living on Mars, or Jupiter, or your…eh, I mean Uranus. Whatever planet it is, it’s not the same one that some of our judges live on.

I’m thinking of a case heard recently in the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court by Judge Elizabeth Dunne involving two brothel keepers.

Judge Dunne said that the two women were involved in a “sordid, despicable and distasteful way of making money and they exploited those who were working for them”. She went on to say that she was glad the women had pleaded guilty as they had saved their male clients a lot of embarrassment.

Is this woman for real? Firstly, both sides of the prostitute contract is an offence. So just how did the brothel keepers pleading guilty save the men from embarrassment? They must have been fined. Right? Had their names read out in open court. Right?

And if the trade that these men were engaged in was “sordid, despicable and distasteful”, why didn’t they receive the same treatment as the brothel keepers? I suppose they were waylaid by the bad temptresses and simply couldn’t – by dint of the uncontrollable testosterone washing about within them – be held accountable for their actions.

Secondly, there was nothing sordid about the brothel. The prostitutes answered ads in ‘In Dublin’. None of them were coerced. The court heard that the brothel was well organised and professional. So much so that the men paid by cheque. Imagine that.

The only reason the brothel was busted was that the Sunday Independent did a sting on it. Otherwise, presumably, the guards would have let it get on with the business of organising sex between consulting adults just like the hundreds of other brothels that they ignore all the time.

Anyway, the judge had to judge. But she could have spared us the Victorian morality.