Joyce Malcolm: Mad Dogs and Englishmen
Joyce Malcolm has an article in the June 17 Wall St. Journal (subscription required). I've got excerpts in the extended entry below.
COMMENTARY: Mad Dogs and Englishmen
The Wall Street Journal p. A11
June 17, 2006
Joyce Lee Malcolm
With Great Britain now the world's most violent developed country, the British government has hit upon a way to reduce the number of cases before the courts: Police have been instructed to let off with a caution burglars and those who admit responsibility for some 60 other crimes ranging from assault and arson to sex with an underage girl. That is, no jail time, no fine, no community service, no court appearance. It's cheap, quick, saves time and money, and best of all the offenders won't tax an already overcrowded jail system.
Not everyone will be treated so leniently. A new surveillance system promises to hunt down anyone exceeding the speed limit. Using excessive force against a burglar or mugger will earn you a conviction for assault or, if you seriously harm him, a long sentence. Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer jailed for killing one burglar and wounding another during the seventh break-in at his rural home, was denied parole because he posed a threat to burglars. The career burglar whom Mr. Martin wounded got out early.
Using a cap pistol, as an elderly woman did to scare off a gang of youths, will bring you to court for putting someone in fear. Recently, police tried to stop David Collinson from entering his burning home to rescue his asthmatic wife. He refused to obey and, brandishing a toy pistol, dashed into the blaze. Minutes later he returned with his wife and dog and apologized to the police. Not good enough. In April Mr. Collinson was sentenced to a year in prison for being aggressive towards the officers and brandishing the toy pistol. Still, at least he won't be sharing his cell with an arsonist or thief.
How did things come to a pass where law-abiding citizens are treated as criminals and criminals as victims? A giant step was the 1953 Prevention of Crime Act, making it illegal to carry any article for an offensive purpose; any item carried for self-defense was automatically an offensive weapon ....
Although British governments insist upon sole responsibility for protecting individuals, for ideological and economic reasons they have adopted a lenient approach toward offenders. Because prisons are expensive and don't reform their residents, fewer offenders are incarcerated. ...
The government's duty to protect the public has been compromised by other economies. Police forces are smaller than those of America and Europe and have been consolidated, leaving 70% of English villages without a police presence. Police are so hard-pressed that the Humberside force announced in March they no longer investigate less serious crimes unless they are racist or homophobic. Among crimes not being investigated: theft, criminal damage, common assault, harassment and non-domestic burglary.
To be fair, under the Blair government a host of actions have been initiated to bring about more convictions. At the end of its 2003 session Parliament repealed the 800-year-old guarantee against double jeopardy. Now anyone acquitted of a serious crime can be retried if "new and compelling evidence" is brought forward. Parliament tinkered with the definition of "new" to make that burden easier to meet. The test for "new" in these criminal cases, Lord Neill pointed out, will be lower than "is used habitually in civil cases. In a civil case, one would have to show that the new evidence was not reasonably available on the previous occasion. There is no such requirement here."
Parliament was so excited by the benefits of chucking the ancient prohibition that it extended the repeal of double jeopardy from murder to cases of rape, manslaughter, kidnapping, drug-trafficking and some 20 other serious crimes. For good measure it made the new act retroactive. Henceforth, no one who has been, or will be, tried and acquitted of a serious crime can feel confident he will not be tried again, and again.
To make the prosecutor's task still easier, he is now permitted to use hearsay evidence -- goodbye to confronting witnesses -- to introduce a defendant's prior record, and the number of jury trials is to be reduced. Still, the government has helped the homeowner by sponsoring a law "to prevent homeowners being sued by intruders who injure themselves while breaking in."
It may be crass to point out that the British people, stripped of their ability to protect themselves and of other ancient rights and left to the mercy of criminals, have gotten the worst of both worlds. Still, as one citizen, referring to the new policy of letting criminals off with a caution, suggested: "Perhaps it would be easier and safer for the honest citizens of the U.K. to move into the prisons and the criminals to be let out."
* Ms. Malcolm is professor of history at Bentley College and author of, inter alia, "Guns and Violence: The English Experience" (Harvard University Press, 2002).