Friday, February 20, 2009

House Points: Those Pennsylvania judges again

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

In the slammer

It’s half term at Westminster, so let’s report a story from the USA. Two judges have pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2.6 million in bribes from a private youth detention centre in return for giving hundreds of youths and teenagers long sentences.

Soon, no doubt, judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, will be unwigged (or whatever happens to corrupt judges) and find themselves in the hoosegow. But their actions have wider importance because they are the logical outcome of allowing the profit motive into the judicial system.

As Rumpole used to remind us, a great many comfortable professional careers are built on the backs of Britain’s criminal classes. But treating Crime Control as Industry, to quote the title of Nils Christie’s 1993 book, is dangerous.
As Christie argues:

Only rarely will those working in or for any industry say that ... we are big enough, we are well established, we do not want any further growth. An urge for expansion is built into industrial thinking, if for no other reason than to forestall being swallowed up by competitors. It follows that once commercial interests are allowed into the system, there will be pressure for more prisons to be built. And to find the prisoners to fill them.

Which is why teenagers in Wilkes-Barre, PA, found themselves banged up for trivial offences like blacking someone’s eye in a playground fight or setting up a MySpace page critical of a teacher.
It’s hard not to cheer when a parent says: “It’s horrible to have your child taken away in shackles right in front of you when you think you’re going home with him. It was nice to see ... [the judges] sitting on the other side of the bench.”

But Ciavarella and Conahan were only taking the commercialisation of crime control to its logical conclusion.


A couple of weeks ago I quoted an eloquent speech on the need for reform of the Commons and Lords, attributing it to David Howarth. It was in fact made by David Heath.

Apologies to all. Speaking as someone who joined the Liberal Party in 1978, it is wonderful that we have so many MPs that you get them confused.

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