As a lover of the written word, I was fascinated by the sentence handed down in Leicester last week. Dealing with a 21-year-old who’d downloaded piles of white supremacist garbage, the judge handed down a suspended prison term… but also said the young convict had to read some great works of literature, covering everyone from Shakespeare to Dickens. “Think about Hardy,” he told him.” Think about Trollope”.
Now you might think a few more non-white writers might’ve been a bit more sensible (and I’d take prison over Trollope any day) but at least the judge was trying something a bit more nuanced. Back when I was at the criminal bar, I’d watch as a thousand differently shaped problems got squeezed into the same prison-shaped hole. I’d also see the result: the same criminals just coming round again and again… locked up, getting out, going right back to offending.
There’s a big conversation to be had on finding alternative sentences that work, for victims and criminals.
There’s some excellent things happening in Brighton, where they’ve been working on a “restorative justice” system — putting the victim front and centre, then asking how they can be repaired and how the offender can make amends. Surely it’s time for a proper debate about finding sentencing that not only provides real deterrent, but also heals as many broken lives as possible.
Labelling Colin Pitchfork “evil” represents a lack of intellectual agility
Speaking of crime and punishment, I’ve also been hearing many views about the case of Colin Pitchfork, imprisoned for two horrifying child murders in 1988 and now released on license. There’s been a handful of people calling him “evil”. To me, it’s a word that represents a lack of intellectual agility.
Of course his crimes were abhorrent. Goodness knows, I understand how offences like this smash up families and communities. Back in my days at the bar, I sat across the table from people guilty of appalling crimes and saw — in tragic detail — just how many lives they’d devastated.
But no matter what they’d done, I couldn’t find it in myself to think of these offenders as “evil”. In part, I think it’s because part of my job was learning all about them: their lives, their hobbies and habits, everything. I was forced to see them as people. When we give criminals labels like “evil”, we dismiss their humanity, and that means we avoid asking truly difficult questions about them — and ourselves. We start to forget that each of us carries not only the capacity for terrific decency, but also for profound wickedness.
Until we truly understand that, we’ll never be mature enough to deal with the complex, dark and challenging questions of why people — not monsters — commit these crimes.
The Jewish New Year begins tonight, but I need more than one Day of Atonement for my sins
Tonight the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins. All being well, as you read this I’ll be munching my mum’s traditional honey cake. It’s also when our annual celestial trial starts, when we’ve got 10 days to repent before the Day of Atonement next week. A year’s worth of behaviour is being judged by the Supreme Being — and she’ll get to decide whether to put us in the Book of Life or not. As always, I think I need a bit more than one Day of Atonement to cover what I’ve been up to… in fact, I might just send a note to Her Upstairs asking for a bit longer (a couple of weeks should do it). If there’s a problem, I’ll just use my normal method of getting what I want… I’ll offer to set Her up with someone utterly fabulous.
What do you think of offenders being sentenced to read? Let us know in the comments below.