Banged to rights

Head to head: Are prisons schools for crime or the only solution to out-of-control lawlessness? Victims of Crime's Norman Brennan takes on ex-convict Mark Leech
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"Over the past two decades, we've gone far too liberal. We've been so weak on crime and law and order that people have been able to commit some of the most dire offences and the sentences have been so derisory that they've come out and reoffended. I've been on a robbery squad for seven years and there's rarely a person I take to Crown Court who hasn't got numerous previous convictions. I believe that at least 95 per cent of those appearing at Crown Court are guilty of one or more of the offences. The Government has got to put in billions of pounds to overhaul the criminal justice system. If new prisons have to be built, so be it. I don't think enough people are in prison, bearing in mind the types of crime being committed. Violent crime has gone up for the past three years.

I deal with the victims of crime and I'm also a policeman, so I see both sides. I go to court and see the appalling way victims and witnesses to crime are treated by judges, barristers and solicitors. And there's no encouragement for people to report crime. Nowadays, we're just trying to make any excuse not to send someone to prison, and I don't think that should be the case. I'm sick and tired of people making excuses for other people's criminality. I've seen offender after offender put back out into the community, given chance after chance, and very, very few are rehabilitated. There's only so many chances that you can give somebody; only so many lives an offender can ruin before we say enough's enough. In my view, the prison population will continue to rise, and substantially so, over the next few years."

Norman Brennan is the founder and director of the independent Victims of Crime Trust.


"Prison not only dehumanises people, it's counter-productive. We all know that people who go to prison learn more about crime by the time they come out ... My criminal career started when I was about eight: I went to a boarding school and that led to my being sexually abused, and it made me into a very bitter and angry young man. It wrecked my life for 20 years, damaged me completely, left me with an anti-authority attitude. At 13, I was in approved school - at 15, in borstal. I ended up in 62 prisons over the next 20 years. My prison career was characterised by riots - rooftop protests. I was an animal, a violent young man, and then I went to Grendon Underwood, the only therapeutic establishment that we have, and that helped me to turn around. In the remainder of the penal system the atmosphere tends to be planning the next job. You get locked in a cell with two or three others and the only subject you have in common is crime.

There are over 66,000 people in our penal establishments at the moment, and all but 33 of those are going to get out. The public has to accept the reality of that. It was brought home to me recently, when my own home was burgled and I was mad, furious. I wanted retribution, revenge, and it polarised for me the two sides in the law-and-order debate. In the long term, if we don't owe it to the prisoner, we do owe it to his next victim to try and discharge them so they're at least no worse than when they came in - and, hopefully, a lot better."

Mark Leech served 13 and a half years in various prisons for robbery. His autobiography, `A Product of the System', is published by Cassell. He now edits the annual `Prisons' Handbook'

Interviews by Veronica Groocock