Military cure can't solve crime

POLEMIC: Army jails are wrong for civilians, says Christopher Bellamy
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The Independent Online
The Home Secretary's latest wheeze - to send young offenders to the one remaining military correction centre at Colchester, or other camps controlled by the forces - is absurd, illegal and unworkable. It should be dismissed immediately.

If the Government believes - as many people do - that the civil legal system is too soft on certain types of offenders, and that the military has valuable lessons to offer in how to run tough prison regimes, then the Government should toughen-up the legal system. It might be modelled in some ways on the military. But there should be no question of making civilians answer a military penal code.

Military law is designed to preserve operational effectiveness in the most unnatural circumstances. Most people's reaction in the face of enemy fire, extreme danger, discomfort or pain is to run away. The fear of failure or punishment has to be stronger than the fear of the act itself. That is why even a highly motivated, professional armed force needs a draconian system of law.

The Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) or "glasshouse" at Colchester is a brand new, purpose-built facility which runs a strict punishment regime for misbehaving servicemen, and the MoD has no intention of giving up places to civilian criminals - who cannot be subjected to military law, anyway.

Drafting the offenders into the forces to bring them under the army's auspices is out of the question - their criminal records would disqualify them.

The armed forces currently have about 90 people in detention at Colchester. "A" wing contains people who have "gone off the rails" a little, and want to get back to their units. "D" wing contains more serious offenders, who are awaiting discharge, and are being retrained to give them skills that will enable them to make a start in civilian life. Military personnel who commit really serious crimes such as murder in peacetime end up in civil courts, and civil prisons. The forces maintain there is no comparison between their detainees and the persistent civilian offenders for whom Michael Howard envisages "boot camps", and cite the reoffender rate - 1 per cent.

The idea of civil law following military law would also fly in the opposite direction to the general movement, which is the other way. Homosexuality between consenting adults was decriminalised under the civil code in 1961: under military law 30 years later, although it remains a disciplinary offence. Therein lies another problem. How would a military prison deal with a young offender who was a homosexual?

The armed forces can be called in as "aid to the civil power", when the civilian authorities cannot cope, and often are. If there are too many criminals and not enough prisons, then the forces can set up and guard prison camps - that is fair enough. But those camps cannot be run according to a regime that is deliberately harsher and more brutal than that in a civilian prison.

It is easy to see why the military regime looks attractive to the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade. But the suggestion that the armed forces should do the corrective work that the civilian penal system is unable to do is intellectually flawed and unacceptable. If we want criminals treated more harshly, we should pass the necessary laws. The armed forces usually end up sorting out politicians' mistakes. But not this time.