*The Wall Street Journal*
*/Mad Dogs and Englishmen/*
By JOYCE LEE MALCOLM
June 17, 2006; Page A11
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-defence was automatically an
offensive weapon and the carrier is guilty until proven innocent. At
the time a parliamentarian protested that, /"The object of a weapon was
to assist weakness to cope with strength and it is this ability
that the bill was framed to destroy."/ The government countered that
the public should be discouraged /"from going about with offensive
weapons in their pockets; it is the duty of society to protect them."
The trouble is that society cannot and does not protect them. Yet
successive governments have insisted protection be left to the
professionals, meanwhile banning all sorts of weapons, from firearms to
chemical sprays. They hope to add toy or replica guns to the list along
with kitchen knives with points. Other legislation has limited
self-defence to what seems reasonable to a court much later.
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. Those who are get sharply reduced sentences, and serve
just half of these.
Still, with crime rates rising, prisons are overcrowded and additional
jail space will not be available anytime soon. The public learned in
April that among convicts released early to ease overcrowding were
violent or sex offenders serving mandatory life sentences who were freed
after as little as 15 months.
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.
As for more serious crime, the unarmed police are wary of responding to
an emergency where the offender is armed. The Thames Valley Police
waited nearly seven hours to enter Julia Pemberton's home after she
telephoned from the closet where she was hiding from her estranged and
They entered once the danger to them had passed, but after those who had
pleaded for their help were past all help.
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."/*