Dominic Lawson: Only prison will deter the thugs that roam our estates

We imprison just 12 people for every 1,000 crimes, compared to 33 in Ireland

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It was just over 40 years ago that the English judicial system finally learned how to deal with violent intimidation against the post-war wave of new Commonwealth immigrants. By the late 1950s areas such as Notting Hill Gate in London had become the hunting ground of young thugs whose idea of a good night out was to terrify the local black population. The judiciary had seemed either uninterested or insufficiently motivated to stamp this out. Then one judge – and family pride motivates me to record that he was a maternal cousin – broke with the head-in-the-sand consensus: this was Mr Justice Cyril Salmon.

In September 1958 nine young men were found guilty in his court of what they had called "nigger hunting" – chasing black citizens around the streets of Notting Hill, while armed with iron bars and table legs. They were, said their defence lawyer, in attempted mitigation of their crimes, "victims of the society in which they live". As Time magazine recorded: "Justice Salmon was unimpressed. Said he: 'Everyone, irrespective of the colour of their skins, is entitled to walk through our streets in peace with their heads erect and free from fear...As far as the law is concerned you are entitled to think what you like, however foul your thoughts; to feel what you like, however brutal and debased your emotions; to say what you like, provided you do not infringe the rights of others or imperil the Queen's Peace. But once you translate your dark thoughts and brutal feelings into savage acts such as these, the law will be swift to punish you, and to protect your victims.'

"Justice Salmon forthwith sentenced all nine youths to four years' imprisonment. Shocked at the severity of the sentence, relatives and friends in the courtroom gasped in dismay, and burst into hysterical sobs outside. Two of the boys were so shaken they had to be helped down the 32 steps to their cells. But that night, all was quiet in Notting Hill."

Nowadays such incidents would be treated with particular severity under the heading of "hate crime". What, though, should we make of the hounding to death of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her severely disabled daughter Francecca, after their lives had been made unbearable by a gang of youths who for 10 years had tormented them, specifically because of Francecca's "otherness"?

At the inquest last month into their deaths a court heard that the mother had approached the police on 33 occasions, but no prosecutions were ever attempted. The inquest heard that the leader of the gang of youths had shouted outside the house where Mrs Pilkington lived with her two children: "We can do anything we like and you can't do anything about it". This was no idle boast – he was telling nothing less than the truth.

While the Pilkington case had an unusually tragic denouement, its basic contours are far from unique. In the course of making a BBC film on the social problems confronting the parents of disabled children, my wife encountered Asher Nardone, the mother of two boys, one of them so profoundly disabled that he requires 24-hour care. Their Dorset council estate has been blighted by a group of inter-connected families who continually abuse and intimidate those they deem to be weak or "different".

Naturally they saw Asher and her children as in that category, and have made their lives so unbearable that the younger son – who is entirely able-bodied – told my wife that he had frequently considered suicide.

Asher Nardone – who, unlike Fiona Pilkington, is a very strong woman – has spent years attempting to get the police to take this torment seriously; but when a local MP wrote to Dorset's chief constable, he passed the letter down the line, and Asher finally received a response from a junior sergeant who told her that she had "an unrealistic expectation of the law".

As Asher told my wife: "The more the law failed us the stronger these people got, to the point they think they are untouchable. The more people felt they were unsupported the less likely they were to report crime. The [gang members] have no qualms at all about getting arrested because they usually get off due to 'lack of evidence'... and [in any case] the usual forms of punishments don't work on them, they have no fear."

These gangs, in short, have the same insouciance towards the law that the Notting Hill "nigger hunters" of the 1950s had – until Cyril Salmon shocked them and their families with salutary sentences.

Increasingly, the "usual form of punishment" for the likes of the teenagers rampaging around Asher Nardone's council estate has been New Labour's brainchild, the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme, a multi-million pound initiative to keep the worst young offenders out of custody. Under this system, criminals aged 10-17 are allowed to stay living at home after committing offences that – were they adults – could result in jail sentences of up to 14 years.

The ISSP has been a complete social and penal failure, although its supporters continue to claim otherwise. Unfortunately for them, last month the University of Portsmouth's Institute of Criminal Justice Studies produced a report which destroyed what remained of its credibility. The study's three authors declared "The ISSP is failing either to protect the public or rehabilitate the youngsters. During the study, more than 90 per cent committed further crimes after their period of supervision had ended" – and here one might add that given detection and conviction rates, this is an astonishingly bad figure.

Youths involved in the scheme told the study, variously, that "The ISSP is not a big part of my life. You just tell the workers what they want to hear and then carry on as normal... 'I have done some really bad stuff and I should have gone to jail'...and "The hardest part of intensive supervision was getting out of bed." No wonder the gang leaders who are terrorising Asher Nardone's family are not afraid of the law.

This is the context in which we should view the outburst on Monday by the so-called "Antisocial Behaviour Czar", Louise Casey. She has become profoundly irritated by the justice system's apparent inability to deal severely with those who make some council estates so scary at night that bus companies have refused to stop there – thus increasing the misery and isolation of the inhabitants. Ms Casey told The Times: "The public want a criminal justice system that is not the criminals' justice system. You have to be tough on crime and tough on criminals, and then get the support and rehabilitation. In that order."

It is true that the British prison population is at an all-time high; but the more relevant statistic is that we imprison just 12 people for every 1,000 crimes. In Spain 48 people are imprisoned per 1,000 crimes, in Ireland 33 per 1,000 crimes. Both those countries have a much lower crime rate than ours. This is not a coincidence.

Of course, you can continue bleating that the sorts of people who made Fiona Pilkington's life unbearable (and are now doing the same to Asher Nardone's family) are "victims of the society in which they live." That was the line taken by the defence lawyer for Notting Hill's "nigger hunters". It's time for the justice system once again to treat this defence with the contempt it deserves – and strike fear into the hearts of the thugs.

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