Lies, statistics and brutally long prison sentences

The message is that drug traffickers are treated leniently in the courts, but the reality is utterly different
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Yet more evidence of the namby-pamby out-of-touch liberalism of Britain's judges has turned up this week, this time in Home Office figures which betray a reluctance to deploy the "three strikes and you're out" law. Imported from the United States, this rule is supposed to deter career criminals by sharply increasing their sentences when they they are convicted of the same offence for the third time.

Introduced in 1999, the Crime Sentences Act is designed particularly to target burglars and drug dealers. So, burglars offending for the third time are meant to receive jail sentences of at least three years, while a third conviction for trafficking class-A drugs attracts a seven-year incarceration.

In theory, anyway. In reality, only eight burglars and three drug dealers have been jailed under the new law over the last three years. Last year, just two mandatory three-year sentences were imposed on burglars, while no drug traffickers were sentenced under the three strikes law at all.

For those many who believe that Britain is soft on criminals, these paltry and declining figures look like confirmation of all their suspicions. The Conservative Party, now led by Michael Howard, the man who as Home Secretary introduced the legislation, was quick to seize upon this angle. "Yet again, the Government's appetite for headlines exceeds its ability to deliver," thundered the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, seemingly unaware of his own leader's ultimate responsibility for it. "This failure to put away career criminals, particularly for drug dealing, demonstrates how ill-thought-out the policy was."

In jails, though, if those who appear to think they are virtually empty only ever visited them, there is ample evidence that such a conclusion is quite, quite wrong. On a recent visit to a women's prison, I sat chatting to a few girls in their twenties in the education room. One calm and amiable young woman was making Christmas cards for her sons, whom she had not seen for a couple of years as they lived in Jamaica. She explained that it would be at least another year before she would meet them again, since she was in for six years, but hoped to be out in three because of good behaviour.

It isn't considered polite in prisons to ask inmates what they are in for, even though that is of course all you want to know. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess that a Jamaican woman parted from her family was probably in prison for being a drugs mule. Assuming this to be the case, I suggested that six years seemed like a long time to part her from her children.

The comment was met with a bow of the head from the Jamaican woman, and loud incredulity from the other two girls.

"You think she's got a heavy sentence?" one of them asked. "Huh! She's lucky. I'm in for 11 years."

"And I'm in for 12," piped up another.

"All right ladies, it's not a competition," the education officer interjected, and the three women laughed bitterly.

The question hung in the air, unasked. What had these two women done? One, after all, was just 22, and had a child herself. The little girl was being looked after by relatives, and was visiting her mother in prison once every two months. Why such formidable sentences at such tender ages?

After a couple of minutes, the young women began to volunteer the information, keen to tell someone on the outside how hard done-by they felt. All were in for attempting to smuggle drugs, all on their first offences.

All had been absolutely amazed when they received their sentences. Far from realising that the courts took a dim view of drug crimes, they had instead believed the hype that we're more used to hearing - that they were pretty safe because their records were clean, that they'd be unlikely to receive a custodial sentence at all on their first offence, and that in the unlikely event that they did, it would be a short one.

The most vocal of the three women, who had attempted to smuggle cocaine from Holland, explained their paradoxical situation. "Sometimes in here the officers say to us, 'If you can't do the time, don't do the crime.' But how could I know that one stupid mistake would land me in prison for so long?

"Nobody tells you that this will happen. Then when it does, everybody in here tells you that your sentence is a deterrent. But until it happens to you, you don't even know what sort of sentence you're going to get? How can it deter people when they don't even know what will happen when they're caught?"

From the pronouncements this week of David Davis and others, and from the general melée of complaints about the leniency of the criminal justice system, it is easy to see how girls like these girls made the assumption that there was not a great deal of risk of punishment involved in committing the crime they chose to commit.

Indeed, the statistics released by the Home Office in reference to drug trafficking and the three strikes law make it look as if even a third conviction would not be enough to land a person in prison for seven years, let alone 12. But if people stopped poring over marginal statistics such as these ones and went instead to the courts and the prisons, they would find that there are spectacular convictions being meted out for drug offences every day.

These women in this one prison are not anomalous. Ask anyone involved in the criminal justice system, and they will confirm that the huge rise in women prisoners that we have seen over the last decade is fuelled significantly by people with sentences just like the ones these girls were so shocked to receive.

Who needs to deploy "three strikes and you're out", when these supposedly tough sentences are being massively surpassed the first time young women are caught doing this incredibly stupid and risky thing? And while these young women were almost certainly absolute nobodies in the larger hierarchy of international drug smuggling, I've seen with my own eyes that ringleaders who are apprehended are treated with similar severity.

On jury service recently, I saw one man whom I and my fellow jurors had found guilty on a first offence of what looked like major drug trafficking sentenced to 36 years in prison. A mandatory seven year-sentence for his third offence seems rather beside the point under such circumstances.

But what isn't beside the point is the noise around such misleading statistics, which gives out the message that drug traffickers are treated leniently in the courts when the reality is utterly different. Each time that a member of the hang 'em, flog 'em squad takes the opportunity to propagandise about mythical soft treatment in the criminal justice system, they themselves are telling criminals that they have nothing to fear.

If they shut up and actually visited a few of the prisons they mouth off about so much, they would begin to understand that their populist message, hysterical, distorted, powerful, shrill, is helping to ensure that record numbers of people end up there.