Elaine Laker, Barrister & Clerk to the Magistrates, Bath; Mike Lloyd, Prison Education Service; Dr Jennifer Scott, Pharmacology Dept., Bath University, on 26 September 2002

The Government have issued a White Paper `Justice for All' proposing changes to the justice system intended to improve conditions for victims and witnesses, speed business in the courts and revise the procedures for some cases, such as those involving fraud. It also suggests intermittent custody (weekends only) and suspended sentences as ways of reducing the prison population.

Each speaker gave a short presentation on the position of his or her section of the justice system now and the effect the white paper might have on it.

Elaine Laker pointed out that responsibility for justice was shared by the state, the public and corporate bodies. Manufacturers and construction companies could affect the amount of crime occurring by the design of their products and buildings. The public could affect the general attitude to misbehaviour and support the police in catching criminals and the courts in sentencing them. They could sit on juries and appear as witnesses more readily than at present. The state could organise the police and Criminal Prosecution Service to be more efficient.

30,000 cases had to be abandoned because witnesses would not appear to give evidence, either from fear of revenge attacks or from apathy.

The general perception that crime is rife is largely due to newspapers emphasising crime, especially violent crime, which makes a `good story'. They do not equally emphasise that overall the violent crime rate is falling.

On average, 4.2% of the population is at risk from crime, but this varies with personal circumstances; it increases to 6.1% for a person earning less than £5,000 p.a, and to 11.6% for an unemployed person. It is also affected by location and time; town centres and weekends have higher risk.

The probation service has already been changed from a `welfare service' supporting people trying not to re-offend to a law enforcement service running punishment in the community as an alternative to prison.

A very large proportion of the cases heard in Magistrates' Courts involve some drug relationship, either to obtain money or from fights over drug dealing.

Mike Lloyd teaches basic literacy and numeracy in prison; 30% of people on the street today cannot write a note to the milkman, which means they are easily subject to mistakes or misdirection when faced with a written form to sign.

Whilst in prison these people live on rumours, mostly about other prisoners, whilst looking towards their leaving date. Getting them interested in anything else is very difficult; they are `paid' (credited with) £5 per week for attending an education class. This `money' can be used to buy sweets etc. and to hire a TV set. An occasional, long-term prisoner does settle to work and can then pass exams, but this is exceptional.

Dr Scott is studying drug addiction. A drug addict is at times a victim and at other times a criminal. Each of them has individual circumstances and this means the treatment must be individual also. Four out of five of those in prison are there for a drug-related crime.

People start to use drugs for a variety of reasons - past abuse; unemployment; ignorance of the danger; fun; peer pressure. Is punishment the right treatment? Does treatment reduce crime?

769 cases were studied over a year. Those treated markedly reduced their criminal activity; the value of this reduction was three times the cost of treatment. The problem is that for some drugs, like heroin, the time required for treatment is very long - up to 10 years - and sentences are generally shorter so treatment is not completed. In Bath, very little treatment is available, although the situation is improving. Re-offending is most effectively prevented by treatment.


Should drugs be legalised?

This was the major question discussed. It was suggested that there were only two choices that would control drug supply and use: legalisation or draconian punishment (life imprisonment or execution). Legalisation and treating drugs like alcohol, either by putting them on general sale or providing them as a controlled supply, was generally favoured. It was accepted that general sale would at first result in an increase in drug usage, but considered that it would settle down to become another method of relaxing from stress. If taxed, like alcohol and tobacco, it could provide a substantial income for the Government.

The experience post-Vietnam in America was that soldiers who had used drugs on the battlefield generally gave them up when their environment changed on return home. Three factors influence usage: the substance - e.g. heroin is more addictive than cannabis; the individual - one person is more prone to addiction than another; and environment - peer pressure and the fear of losing a good job affects the user's attitude.

Educating and training children from an early age may prevent them starting to experiment with drugs. They do, however, need support from their family; if their parents use drugs it is difficult to prevent them doing so. Their parents may be particularly prone to use drugs if they are poor or unemployed.

The adversarial procedure is unsuitable for use in Magistrate's Courts for the types of crime they deal with. Would it not be better to use the investigative procedure?

This would require a major change by the police and legal services. It might be satisfactory to change the existing system, especially so as to give victims more influence on the sentence, and witnesses more protection from intimidation, which this White Paper is proposing.

Only one member of the audience raised the need for a change in the attitude of the public to impose more discipline on children from an early age and teach them morality and the difference between right and wrong, which he saw as missing in today's society.

Donald Lovell