The Public Be Damned

In the 28 January issue I ran a story about two murderers who escaped from prison in England. I noted the story was an example of “zero tolerance” mentality migrating to the real world:

The Public Be Damned

Two convicted murderers are among 13 escapees from a prison in Sudbury, Derbyshire, England, in recent months. But most of the men, including the murderers, are still at large because police won’t release their photos, since that could breach their human rights. “When making a decision to release any photograph, police forces must take into account numerous factors including the public interest test,” lectured a police spokesman, “whether there is a strong local policing purpose and, of course, the Human Rights and Data Protection Acts.” So now what? The spokesman said by escaping, the felons “abuse the trust we have placed in them,” and “it’s up to us to trace their whereabouts.” (PA)…While it’s up to the public to worry about how the police abuse the trust we have placed in them.

My tagline led to this reader complaint:

I believe you erred in blaming the law enforcement officials of abusing our trust. They did not pass the Human Rights and Data Protection Act. They are simply left with, I am sure, the unwelcome job of complying with it? Please place the blame where blame lies. In this instance, with the members of Parliament, or perhaps the European Union, whichever is responsible. –Tom, Texas

I did place the blame where it lay: on the police. Their blind adherence to what they perceive as the letter of the law, instead of applying some thought or common sense — zero tolerance — is the problem, not the privacy law. Indeed, it went far beyond (as one of the stories this week notes) the “absurd threshold” in their interpretation, which is fairly common in ZT cases.

Who Says?

And that’s not just my opinion. The London Times reported that the Lord Chancellor was furious at the police for their decision, calling it “absolute nonsense.” Britain’s Department for Constitutional Affairs noted that the Human Rights Act explicitly allows police to print “wanted” pictures if it’s in the public interest. Surely the public in the area is “interested” to know about escaped murderers running around!

But in that report there was this perplexing detail: The escapees, “[Jason] Croft, also known as Jason Fox, from Salford, and [Michael] Nixon, of Blackley, Manchester, were near the end of life sentences for murder and had been given day release and allowed home visits” when they escaped.

They were “near the end” of life sentences?! Oh, how the language has been twisted by our courts! Both had received “life” sentences in 1996 for killing teens. That they’re nearing the end of their “life” sentences after just a decade makes a mockery out of the concept.

What’s Your Life Expectancy?

Britain used to hang people for willful murder; now a kinder, gentler sentence is “life” — but they’ll only do that if they can let them out after awhile. You know, after they’ve learned their lesson.

I’m not much of a proponent for the death penalty (I think it should be reserved for particularly heinous crimes), but the system can go too far in the other direction, too.

Anyway, despite the political pressure, the Derbyshire police still defended its position. It said the murderers had been assigned a “low risk” before the Prison Service “transferred them from a closed to an open prison.”

Gee: do you think if they realized the guys were a flight risk they might have made a different classification decision?

After the criticism, the police did in fact release the photos, proving that “human rights” laws indeed didn’t prohibit the idea. As far as I can tell, Nixon is still on the lam; Croft was captured.

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19 thoughts on “The Public Be Damned

  1. Sadly, here in the UK, we are being sucked into the abyss as far as Political Correctness (PC) and ZT is concerned. Our government is little by little giving away our rights under the guise of adherance to European legislation. When one looks to other European nations, they don’t seem to be so fussy.

    Admittedly, if a law is agreed and passed in Europe, everyone should comply, but sometimes it seems like only the UK does so! For example, in July smoking in public places will be banned and the police will have powers to arrest offenders (good… I’m a non-smoker). In France where they introduced a similar law, the French people have chosen to ignore it – so have the police by all accounts. This is the difference in attitude.

    Brits are compliant and uphold the laws no matter how ridiculous – the rest of Europe seems to be more choosy. Who is right? Some balance is needed, but how do you do that when our UK laws are being dictated by the European Union as well as locally? I guess there may be a similarity with the state and federal laws in the US?

    Sometimes I despair. The UK is a fantastic place to live, but the long term prospects for our freedom is not encouraging….

  2. I also noticed the story and was (and am) not entirely certain that the police were wrong when deciding to withhold pictures – even if “the Lord Chancellor was furious”. Why?

    First of all – what is the purpose of publicizing the photos to begin with? It must either be to warn the public of a threat from the fugitives, or to ask the public for help in locating them. Since the two fugitives apparently had their life-sentence reduced and since they apparently had been given day-leaves, etc. I think it is fair to speculate that they were not considered to pose an immediate threat to the public. For some reason, even as fugitives they were not considered to be an immediate threat to the public, and the part of the story provided in TRUE gave me no basis to question that decision with any authority. (I.e. no indication as to whether they were generally violent, attacking strangers in the streets or had been law-abiding citizens up until they killed their wife in a fit of jealousy.)

    Second, if you add to this that large segments of the British media is – at least in other parts of Europe – notorious for their blatant disregard of public safety and/or the safety of the people included in the stories they write when they, in effect, place real or supposed criminals in the public pillory, the decision starts to make sense. Take, for instance, the very recent story of the serial killer in Ipswich in December 2006 where several interviews with a man is publicized, many clearly with the angle that he is the killer, and his name and picture provided to the public in the process. He may or may not have been involved in the murders, but fact remains that he was charged shortly after the interview, but later released on bail, and another man remains in custody, charged with the murders. We don’t know whether he would have been charged anyway, but it is not unlikely that he was arrested as much for his own safety and then “had to” remain in custody until the police had identified and captured the man they later decided to charge.

    Third, automatically releasing the picture of any Tom, Dick and Harry the police might be looking for might not only affect their public rights (making a following trial more difficult), it will also have the long term effect that the general public grows more accustomed to – and subsequently less aware of – these pictures, reducing their productive effect and again reducing them to modern pillories.

    So, I do strongly believe that the police did right in trying to assess the pros and cons of making the pictures public. Yes, the fugitives are convicted murderers, but if publizing the pictures does not make the public more responsive to an actual threat and does not help the police re-capture the fugitives significantly faster, then why publish the photos?

    Automatically releasing photos is, IMO, mindless following of procedure. Taking the time to decide whether it is actually necessary is not.

  3. If this is twisting language, it’s twisting with a long tradition and a global reach.
    According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_imprisonment of 26 countries on three continents described there, a “life sentence” only lives up to its name in four (Estonia, the Netherlands, the United States (federal and some states), and Vietnam). The Netherlands barely counts, as in the last 62 years only 32 criminals (excluding war criminals) have received a life sentence, compared to over 30,000 such prisoners in the US (life without parole) in 2003 — http://www.soros.org/initiatives/justice/articles_publications/publications/lifers_20040511

    Of course, in most of these countries, some prisoners never leave prison alive, but this seems to a narrow exception rather than the rule.

    According to http://www.usdoj.gov/uspc/history.htm in 1910 in the US, federal prisoners serving a “life term” were eligible for parole after 15 years. In 1976, this was reduced to ten years. Only for prisoners sentenced in the last 20 years or so has parole been abolished for federal prisoners sentenced to life — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_imprisonment

    The only mockery here is the idea that throwing people in prison until they die is justice except in a very small minority of cases.

  4. Yesterday we heard “A US soldier has been sentenced to 100 years in a military prison for raping and murdering a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killing her family” (after bargaining to avoid a death sentence). Sounds a drastic punishment, longer than “life”, but it was said he too will only serve 10 years.

  5. I entirely agree with your comments. Life sentences in the UK are just a walk in the park! It is ridiculous to call a short term sentence, life. And their respect for the criminals’ human rights borders the ridiculous. What about the potential victims’ rights?

  6. I agree with Marc on this one. In the UK, prisoners can apply for parole after four years; murderers are extremely unlikley to be paroled at this point, but often are after nine years if they do not present a threat to the public, e.g. if it was a crime of passion, or was committed when the individual was a teenager, or for some other reason that makes it unlikely that they will re-offend. There are many cases (such as the infamous child serial killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley) where the offenders will never be released. The problem with removing all hope of release from prisoners is that they have nothing to lose, which makes the lives of prison guards not only difficult but extremely risky.

    The reason we no longer have the death penalty is not because of its effects on the prisoners, or even because of the risk of innocent people being executed – it is because of its brutalising effect on the rest of us.

    In the old days, crowds of people would go to hangings to watch, too…. -rc

  7. I wonder if the blind adherence to policy on the part of police might not be a result of a previous reprimand for not doing so?

    In other words, a sort of “malicious obedience” might have come into play, wherein the police are above reproach because they can point to a written poilicy which was followed to the letter without risk of being reprimanded for not doing so.

    This is another unintended consequence of government’s attempt to legislate for every eventuality without conceding any responsibility to to public servants other than “doing what it says in the book.”
    Makes it easy for them and hell for the rest of us….

  8. The police reason for not posting the pictures is absurd. “Most wanted” posters are legend in police stations and in local newspapers so that people can protect themselves and assist law enforcement in finding criminals. I fear that we are only one step away from not arresting people because of their race, so that we will not appear to be arresting people – because of thier race??? – or maybe arresting a higher percentage of other people to balance out the numbers of the others being arrested? What about you are who you are, you did what you did, and these are the consequences?

    A society that protects the criminals instead of the victims fits the very definition of lawlessness – why doesn’t anyone get that?

    Our societies, the U.S and the U.K. are suffering from cognitive dissonance. It is obvious from our relative ranking in the world when it comes to raising children. We’ve got our priorities all messed up. When you can’t see what you see and hear what you hear, the psychosis usually sets in.

  9. Just to correct the impression created by your previous correspondent’s comment: They were not nearing the end. A life sentence in the UK lasts for life. What they were nearing the end of was their initial prison time.

    A life sentence comes with a “tariff” set by a judge. That can be (in exceptional cases) as low as a year. It can be 30 years; any amount. That’s the minimum time someone will serve in prison. At the end of the tariff time, the inmate can apply for parole, If they get it (it isn’t automatic — and usually, for lifers takes some years to achieve) they can spend the rest of their sentence in the community, subject to probation officers and recall to prison at any moment if they are seen to misbehave.

    Being a lifer out on license is no fun. Simply missing a probation meeting can invoke a recall, and sorting out the paperwork on that can take another year of jail time. (That’s a year if you had a cast iron reason, like say you’d stopped in the street on the way to the meeting to administer first-aid to a stranger; had saved their life, and have the police back up to prove it). It’s not a lot of fun serving the remainder of a life sentence in the community (I know from having met a few)….But it does save the taxpayer zillions if it avoids locking up people who are no longer a danger.

  10. It does seem that some laws are over-emphasised through fear of litigation. The Human Rights v Public Interest coming up in news stories more often is an example. I assume you heard about drug addicts in prison getting compensation for being taken off drugs (I m not talking about legal medication here, rather the stuff that probably influenced them to commit some of their crimes). Also Health & Safety whilst I agree H&S is important it is often used to justify stupid decisions and a proliferation of silly labelling (Caution may contain nuts on bags of peanuts; iron gets hot in use).

    So, I would agree that the police were at fault for not releasing the photos but would guess that it was less their wish to adhere to the Human Rights Act and more their fear of subsequently being dragged off to court by members of a legal profession which is more interested in making money than acting in the public interest.

    Yes, I even ran the story in the 10 December 2006 issue about the British prisoners suing over not being allowed to use drugs in prison. To settle the suits, the Home Office awarded each of the inmates up to 5,000 pounds (US$9,800) to settle the suits. -rc

  11. I was a police officer in england for ten years until I moved to the USA where I cannot continue that career because I am not a citizen. But my point is in England a life sentence isn’t actually life, it’s 15 years maximum. Plus they cannot add further sentences onto that one like they do here in the states and offenders cannot be convicted of more than one offence at the same time — only one is allowed. Just to add more stupidity to the situation.

    The other mad thing is when we used to go and arrest someone on a warrant we were not allowed to have a picture of them again due to the human rights act which was brought in by the European Union after the second world war and the geneva convention.

  12. Randy you are probably a dare I say ‘rare’ american who travels outside the USA and knows more about the UK than most americans who never travel outside their own country. The comment by Tom in Texas was written like he knew what happened when the Derbyshire police refused to publish the pictures of the escaped murderers and that it was all our government’s fault. He’s probably read that and commented when he’s probably never been outside his own state. Well I come from Derbyshire, live in Loughborough, Leicestershire but my mum still lives in Derby; I read the UK papers, watch the UK news so I think that qualifies me to comment.

    Derbyshire police are a prime example of the incompetence of our law enforcement in the UK. Wales is another where its the rot that starts from the man at the top – The Chief Constable – and filters down to the rest of the force. You didn’t say who released the photos and it read like Derbyshire released them; in fact it was the Manchester police who released them as they were more worried the offenders would return home to their patch as they both came from their area.

    The reason Derbyshire were involved was because they absconded from Sudbury Open Prison in Derbyshire which has been given £25,000 by the Home Office for its high performance even though 665 inmates have escaped in the past 10 years (2 rapists only last week). The money was given after being awarded high-performing status by the director general of the prison service, Phil Wheatley. To celebrate the windfall, Sudbury Prison paid company JD Parties to organise a black tie party at Pride Park’s (Derby County Football Club) Assa Suite. Guests were treated to a champagne reception, followed by a three-course meal and two hour-long sets by a band. Source: Derby Evening Telegraph, Oct/06

    I like a growing number of normal UK people are getting sick and tired of the police shirking their responsibilities and trying to hide behind some lame european legislation that means they won’t have to do any hard work chasing dangerous criminals. They are more interested in chasing motorists for speed camera and other minor offences as they are easy targets other than getting murders, muggers and rapists off our streets.

    As an aside I would say, yes – our life sentences are absurd because life doesn’t mean life over here. Usually you can expect to get out after 10 years for murder in this country which is ridiculous, my own opinion is life should mean the very word – you rot in prison and die in there although most would enjoy a life style inside prison better than a lot of old people struggling on a state pension.

    Link to a source of info: http://www.derbygripe.co.uk/sudbury.htm this makes shocking reading. If any of your prisons were like this I bet you would be worried – a lot of UK people are.

  13. Good story, and one we’ve been aware of for a while. I think you will find that it isn’t the police being stupid, it’s simply that they, like most of us, are fed up with this daft legislation which seems to do nothing but protect those that we need protecting from. I’m sure you will find that the Derbyshire Police are using this as a high profile tool to demonstrate that this inane law needs drastic changes or, better still, scrapping altogether.

    It has not escaped the notice of most Brits that Tony Blair brought this law in, while his wife (fondly known as the Wicked Witch of the West) makes a small fortune from public funds by fighting on behalf of it in our courts.

  14. I just thought that I should clarify the term “life” sentence as understood in the UK.
    A Life sentence actualy IS for life (despite what Phil says). However it is quite likly that some sentenced to life may be released under license after quite a short time, while a few will die of old age in prison.

    In the UK prison is intended to fullfill three functions.

    1) to protect society
    2) to punish the offender
    3) to rehabilitate the offender

    If the courts feel that all three have been achieved then they will release the offender under license. Breach of the terms of that license mean that the offender will be returned to prison.

    One example is that of Leslie Grantham a well known actor in the UK who in his youth was sentenced for murder. He has not reoffended and has both suported his family and paid significant amounts in tax (rarther than costing the same) since his release many decades ago.

    There are however those who will probably never be released.

    Myra Hindley, Peter Sutcliffe etc. They have spent more than the 15 years that Phil, a former police officer, claims is a maximum. Indeed I see no prospect that they can ever be released given the nature of their crimes.

  15. Unfortunately, Canada has similar laws to the UK. Our life sentence is suposed to be 25 years, but in reality many offenders get far less, especially due to our mandatory parole laws. However, more often than not, it’s the judge’s decisions that mystify me. There are a variety of cases where judges have decided that knocking on someone’s door during an investigation requires a warrant, even if the police had no reason to believe the person had committed the crime.

  16. Randy – two points: Sudbury is in SUFFOLK, UK not Derbyshire.

    I live a few miles from this prison and I can assure you WE WERE pretty interested in seeing who had escaped – nobody seemed to be interested in MY human rights with regard to escaped murderers on the loose.

    But to be fair this is what is called and “Open Prison” in the UK and you canm quite literally walk out the door.

    Inmates tend to be low-grade prisoners like “white collar” criminals and also people who are soon to be released. They often have courses to reintergrate the prisoners back into society.

    I’m no bleeding heart and support a death penalty for well defined/proven cases but the vast majority of Murderers in jail will never kill again and are no more danger than you and I – they are just doing society’s punishment.

    Every source I’ve seen notes the Sudbury open jail is in Derbyshire. Example, example, example and example. How about a site full of photos of the area? -rc

  17. Re which county Sudbury jail is in (Bev Lawton, 27/2/07 at 10:12pm) –

    It looks as though there is a place called Sudbury in both counties. The bigger / more important town of Sudbury is indeed in Suffolk as Bev says. However the prison called Sudbury really is in Derbyshire.

    Just to add to the confusion, there are several prisons in Suffolk, including at least one open prison of similar type to that from which these people absconded.

    Last point: technically, prisoners “abscond” from an open prison as it really is open. They don’t escape. The public protection control is that they risk getting stuck back in closed prisons when they are caught (much less pleasant places). As others have mentioned, open prisons are intended for low-risk, non-violent prisoners and for those approaching release as a half-way point to help re-integration into society at large. At least in theory, that way you reduce re-offending caused by dumping people out on the street with no job and no experience of current society. Imagine you’d been in jail for 10 yrs – how familar might you be with innovations like cellphones, iPods and chip-and-pin credit cards? Oh and that other bane of UK life, the speed and license plate recognition camera.

  18. Strangely enough, this also happened (to me and my neighbors) in the American South in 2002. When local radio news announced the escape of members of a prison work crew near my Clark County home, I called the police to find out what they looked like and what they were in for. I was told they couldn’t release that information. After the men were captured (one hiding under a vacant house just down the road) the radio news reported they were serving time for rape, armed robbery, and aggravated assault!

  19. I agree with a lot of the comments on this article, but a lot of people should realise the real people at fault here are NOT the police trying to do their job. It’s the stupid elected officials who pass idiotic laws that can see police sacked and worse for passing out information without first jumping through 1,001 silly hoops to ensure they meet all the political correctness rubbish. Many police forces no longer have wanted posters for known criminals with photos as that’s seen as violation of human rights? The politicians pass laws to support this while forgetting about the human rights of the general citizens.

    There are many such laws that restrict police in the performance of their duties. One not so recent incident in Australia involved all the hemming and hawing about releasing Tasers to the police to use in subduing criminals as an option to use instead of batons or firearms. The final thing that got the politicians to approve the issue of the Tasers was the knowledge that, although being unlawful to own any in the state, many criminals already had them and were using them in various robberies.

    let’s blame the idiot law makers and not the poor people trying to enforce the laws. After all, if the police violated the laws, most of those complaining at the moment would be the first to complain about the police – and rightly so.

    While there is plenty of blame to go around, I did address your specific point in the original posting. -rc

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