Letters: Offenders and prison

Offenders should pay something back, not languish in a prison cell
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The Independent Online

Sir: Dominic Lawson's argument that "The most effective way to reduce crime is to put more criminals in prison" (10 February) flies in the face of evidence and common sense.

The new Government five-year strategy signals a welcome change of direction. Those offenders carrying out unpaid work in the community are paying something back to society rather than languishing in a prison cell. Many subject to community penalties will also be making direct reparation through compensation orders. Charles Clarke's determination to reserve prison for serious, violent and dangerous offenders will enable prison staff to do a better job in protecting the public by concentrating their efforts on those who really do need to be locked up.



Sir: Dominic Lawson's article on the purpose and importance of prisons (10 February) has me seething with indignation. While I appreciate that the loss of a friend to an appalling crime is tragic, he is surely abusing his journalistic power by trying to base an entire penal philosophy upon Mr Monckton's untimely demise.

Any commentator who cites the American criminal-justice model as some sort of ideal must be either ill-informed or just plain stupid. Falling crime rates in western democracies have nothing to do with rates of imprisonment but, rather, are driven by significant decreases in acquisitive crime. And these falls have nothing to do with notions of deterrence - offenders rarely consider the prospect of detection and capture - but are attributable to a variety of factors such as: the falling resale value of electronic goods; better home and vehicle security; relatively strong economies and employment levels, and the growing reluctance of insurance companies to provide cover for people living in high-crime areas, thereby rendering it futile for poorer people to report burglaries to the police

While he may be right that the general public doesn't fully appreciate the early release and parole schemes, Lawson's argument that parole should be drastically cut is ludicrous and would cost billions. Surely he appreciates the imperatives of prison management and the need for the authorities to be able to incentivise good behaviour and a level of willingness among offenders to address the causes of their offending behaviour. And how typical that he makes no mention of the much greater penal scandal of recent years; the lack of "through the gate" care for offenders upon their release.



Power is the enemy of free speech

Sir: Both Johann Hari and Adrian Hamilton's columns (9 February) were important contributions to the current debate about free speech vs religious sensitivity in our beleaguered times.

When English PEN celebrated the House of Commons vote (31 January) in favour of the Lord's amendments to the Racial and Religious hatred Bill, we recognised that this was not only a victory for us but for the intricate processes of parliamentary democracy so dependent on that very freedom.

However, we knew, in Philip Pullman's words, that there would be "a continued need for vigilance": power, whether religious or secular, is always jealous, hates ridicule and any representation of itself that it doesn't control.

The problem in the west today is that we (and that "we" includes people of all faiths and none) are unwilling to think of religion as a cloak for power. We collude in seeing its symbols either as signs of holiness or, in migrant groups, as a comfort for the very humiliations of poverty and lack of belonging that the host society inflicts. If the Danish cartoons were offensive, it was because they targeted an immigrant group in a stereotypical way. The sense of humiliation they felt is better dealt with by addressing social problems. Religious leaders would do better to provide help for the community at home than to seek solace in jihadist movements abroad.

The reason free speech is crucial is that its opponent is most often power - whether the soft British state, Hitler's totalitarian one, the Catholic Church or Islamic orthodoxies, which in their own states are quick to lock up dissidents of all kinds.

Powerful institutions use different arguments against free speech - "national security", "multicultural harmony", "sacrilege" or "blasphemy" - but all these attempts to limit free speech are in the service of power, not of the higher values behind which they parade. It is in the interest of our plural democracies that as long as expression does not directly incite violence, it be kept free. Better to suffer the occasional offence than the full force of religious or state oppression.



Sir: Tarek Abdel-Rahman says (letters, 9 February) "For us, insulting the Prophet is like praising the Holocaust for the Jews". I cannot see how saying you're glad that millions of people have been murdered is anything remotely like implying in a cartoon that a religious figure may be responsible for the terrorist acts of believers. If Muslims really think these things are morally equivalent then we do indeed have a conflict of values.



Sir: Tarek Abdel-Rahman sees Muslims as being "continuously portrayed" in cartoons, movies and TV programmes as bloodthirsty terrorists who oppress women. Is this impression any less accurate as a generalisation than the belief that "the Jewish community in Britain is in league with the Freemasons to control the media and politics", which, according a recent Populus poll, is a view held by 46 per cent of Muslims in Britain, with only 22 per cent disagreeing?



Blair's failure to save wildlife centres

Sir: You report that "Blair will not intervene to save wildlife centres" (10 February). It's quite understandable that nobody wants to take the blame for the increasingly embarrassing decision to axe vital science at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) just when it is needed more than ever before. So, Tony Blair leaves the final word to NERC who blame CEH whose Executive Board were asked to work out the controversial business plan.

However, devolved government, where elected representatives make decisions, cannot be equated with the power wielded by the appointed members of the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC). Appointments are made by the Secretary of State and Industry, and NERC itself is funded through the Office of Science and Technology which is of course part of the Department for Trade and Industry. Finally, let's not forget that the CEH restructuring was ordered in response to a yearly deficit of £1.5m, but will cost £45m and will stop the monitoring of biodiversity and climate change at the same time. To me, this constitutes a waste of taxpayers' money, and I for one would like the Government to get involved in preventing it.



Sir: Your article "Driven to extinction" (9 January) refers to financial cuts being planned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) within the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH). Some cuts will be taking place from 31 March 2006.

Not apparent in these proposed closures of laboratories is that CEH is withdrawing financial support from the Fritsch Collection, a vast and unique algal reference collection housed at the laboratory of the Freshwater Biological Association (FBA). The Fritsch Collection is used extensively by algologists worldwide to clarify taxonomic problems, assist in identification, and study global distribution.

CEH funding is also being withdrawn from the Library of the FBA, which is considered by many as one of the finest freshwater reference libraries in the world.



Home repossession levels are down

Sirs: You are wrong (4 February) to state that home repossessions in 2005 were at their highest level since the 1991 crash. As clearly stated by the Council of Mortgage Lenders, home repossessions are still less than one third the rate in 1997, and at their third lowest total since 1983. Furthermore, far from Britain being in a state of "boom and bust", we have just registered the 54th quarter of consecutive economic growth, we are at the top of the OECD for the stability of growth and inflation, we have seen average wealth per head rise from last in the G7 to third, and - with interest rates, inflation and unemployment still at historic lows - households across the income scale are continuing to see their living standards rise.



The cold-call nuisance

Sir: Your correspondent Dave Sinclair, (3 February) pleads with us to have some sympathy with the call-centre staff causing the nuisance of cold calls. I was a shift worker for many years and had my rest disturbed on countless occasions by these calls. I was forced to register with the Telephone Preference Service in an attempt to reduce the annoyance. Has Mr Sinclair considered the effect upon shift workers in our emergency services? They are entitled to their rest during the day, free from this kind of communication vandalism.



Italian coffee

Sir: If Dylan Jones is trying to teach us how to order coffee stylishly he really should get it right ("Drink like an Italian, 9 February). The straight and strong coffee he refers to is called liscio, not lascio, and the double espresso is doppio not doppo.



Heroin's 'heroic' origins

Sir: How ironic that Deborah Orr's piece on Pete Doherty's heroin addiction (9 February) should be headlined "He thinks he's heroic, when really he's just a fool". Heroin was named by its discoverer, Heinrich Dreser, in 1898 after he tested it on the Bayer workforce in Germany. They said it made them feel heroisch (heroic). Thus, creating a brand name became easy.



Long-lived vegetarian

Sir: Charles Nevin ridicules dietary research (9 February). Yet his examples weigh against his argument. Shaw, vegetarian, lived to 94. The meat eater Caruso died at 48 and Handel and AA Milne both died at 74.



Boy trouble

Sir: Monica Hall (letter, 8 February) cites an African tribe that preserved "normal life" in its villages by packing off all boys at 13, allowing them back at 18. They were "so chastened by their ghastly experiences that they couldn't wait to settle down quietly". It doesn't work in our boarding schools - as all the "Hoorays" ably demonstrate.



Sparrows' many foes

Sir: I have been following the correspondence regarding sparrows with interest, and was impressed by how adroitly Donald Lyven was able to blame both "foreign four-wheel-drive vehicles" and estate agents for their decline (Letters, 10 February).

I had long suspected supermarkets, traffic wardens, tax inspectors and possibly even speed cameras to be complicit in the occasional decline in the population of sparrows in my back garden.

However, I have since been forced to admit that it may have more to do with the sparrow hawk which regularly perches on the bird feeder, looking malevolent and hungry.