I could write something wordy and legal about knife crime, but I don’t want to get to the lawyers and the police, that’s preaching to the converted. The reality is that, like it or not, those we need to reach with the knife crime reality are those who are allowing these knives to walk out of their front door every day, the parents and the schools.
I spend many hours with parents who won’t accept until its too late that their son or daughter is carrying a knife which they have taken from their kitchen or which has been bought on the internet with their debit card. Likewise, I spent many hours with youths who tell me that knives are rife in their school but that the schools don’t like to accept it for fear of bad publicity, or with police officers who tell me that the schools will not permit them to go into schools and carry out knife searches when the students are present as they don’t want to give the wrong impression to parents.
Well, these parents and schools need to wake up. Their sons and daughters are carrying knives, they are taking them from the kitchen or garage, they are buying them on the internet and having them imported from places like China for less than £10. Any every one of these knives when taken out of the house becomes a potential weapon.
The police have powers to search schools and students for knives, but until schools work with the police to allow random searches, the students will continue to carry these knives in their bags and clothes. The police use the term disruption, and that‘s what random school searches will become, the majority of pupils will stop bringing knives to school as it will be too difficult. But without the support of the schools, these random searches will never happen, and Head Teachers will continue to stand in front of the press and give a glowing tribute to another life lost.
There is a big debate on stop and search. I don‘t want to get into that argument, but it is clear that random searches of a class or year group or section of the school will not be subject to the same stop and search arguments, it won’t be targeting certain individuals, and it will be sanctioned by the school.
This will require a strong Governor Board to stand up to parents who complain about their son or daughter being searched when they have done nothing wrong. Those same parents who may one day be standing infront of the press taking about how their son or daughter was a budding athlete, footballer, musician, until their life was taken by a knife.
Knife crime is tough.. it kills…and the only way to try and reduce it is to give out tough messages.
There is legislation drafted to prosecute anyone who orders a knife on the internet from overseas, unfortunately it is not yet in force, and there is no date for it to come into force. As a defence lawyer, I will no doubt be criticised for saying that I think there should be tougher laws in place on importation of weapons, but as a defence lawyer I see the lives destroyed by knives, the clients who end up in prison or a young offenders institution for possession or use of a knife, bought on the internet from China for the same price as a KFC family bucket meal. If a parent’s debit card is linked to a purchase and it’s the parent who is getting a knock from the police and being asked to go the police station they are more likely to question what their son or daughter is ordering on the internet.
The police can only do so much and, to be blunt (no pun intended), once a knife is out of the house or school it’s possibly too late. The fact it’s an offence to carry a knife doesn’t act as a deterrent to many knife carriers, nor has the increase in sentence had a knock on effect of a downward spiral or knife possession. So perhaps parents and schools are the answer..or at least part way to the answer of reducing the number of youths who are bleeding out cold on the pavement.
Why is Middle England avoiding the fact that youths are dying every week at the hands of a youth and a blade?
Many readers won’t like my blunt approach but unless middle class parents in Middle England start to understand the harsh reality of knife crime, their sons and daughters are at risk. Knife crime is a problem and kids across the UK are dying from the blade. The usual comments to the press by a grieving parent is ‘They were a good child, with a great future ahead of them which has been cruelly taken away’. These are the youths who were talented footballers, or aspiring doctors, or just those who went out to a friend’s house for the evening and never came home.
The sad thing is that many of the deaths don’t even make the media anymore, just a common everyday occurrence, and for the majority of the public it is believed to be something which only happens in inner city estates between gangs. Well this is a naïve view. Anyone, anywhere can die or be seriously injured at the hands of someone with a knife.
Part of this naivety comes from the fact that the media doesn’t report it. Schools don’t want to tell the parents about the number of knives being found during knife sweeps in school grounds as they don’t want the parents to question the safety of their children while at school. Many police forces actively discourage any mention of knives being found and knife crime, for fear of the community complaining that the police are not protecting the community and making it safe. Some of the police officers who have the courage to promote their knife findings face criticism (and worse) from their superiors, for speaking out. Fortunately, I can speak out.
And not to overlabour the point, but while this problem is being kept in the shadows, kids are still dying. I know of at least 5 deaths of teenagers around the UK at the hands of the knife in August and September. Put that into perspective, in a class of 30 students, that’s one sixth of the class dead in the space of two months!
I work with kids who are involved in gangs and who carry knives. For them carrying a knife is for status, the gang requires them to carry a weapon, and it is for protection. These knives are usually not just a small blade – machetes, double serrated edge 15 inch blades and flick knives are regularly found by the police during searches of people and cars, at crime scenes and during weapons sweeps in public places. But these are not the only ones carrying knives, and it is the unknown and unsuspected ones who are most at risk.
There is a huge increase in youths carrying knives or blades as they feel the need to do so for their own protection. Youths who have never been in contact with the police before, who are doing well at school and who have a stable home life, but still feel the need to place a knife in their backpack. And these are also the youths who are dying at the end of their own blade, or who are sitting in a police cell for the first time having been found with a knife on them.
It is the parents of these youths who tell me that they had no idea their son or daughter was carrying a knife, and they can’t understand why. And they don’t like my answer which is that ‘it’s what youths do these days, carrying a knife is now commonplace‘. The sad thing is that we are usually having this discussion in a police station or courtroom, by which stage their son or daughter is facing a spell in a young offenders institution.
The question which comes next from most parents is ‘where did they get the knife?’
The answer to that is usually simple, either from the kitchen or from the internet. The first time knife carriers will probably have taken the knife from the kitchen drawer. It may have been noticed missing but the parents never think to question their son or daughter, why would they, they are a good kid. The progression is then to purchasing a knife on the internet, often using a parent’s Paypal account or credit card. A large gutting knife, with a double serrated edge, can be purchased for £9.99 on the internet. Less than £10 can take a life or ruin a life.
The next thing I hear is usually ‘but why didn’t the school warn us?’
Well, firstly it’s not the school’s responsibility to educate the parents, and I usually tell them so. And secondly, knives are not usually taken into the classroom. That would be too easy to detect. Knife sweeps of school grounds, gardens, drainpipes, hedges on the way to the school are all areas where knives are hidden for the day at school and then picked up on the way home, or left there for longer, with the youths safe in the knowledge that if they need to use it at school they know where to find it.
I regularly hear the comment ‘He/she didn’t have it at home because I would have known.’
Again that’s rubbish. Most youths are not even very sophisticated in their hiding places at home as they know that parents will not search their back pack or boxes under their bed. The more sophisticated ones will hide the knife in the places which are harder to spot, back of a Playstation, inside socks in a drawer, strapped underneath an outside window-ledge, or in the hedge in the side alley. But make no mistake, even an unsophisticated knife carrier can easily hide a knife if their parents have no idea that they should look for it.
Staying on the home front, it is also unlikely that many parents would understand their son or daughter was talking about a knife even if they overheard them on the phone or caught a glimpse of their internet chats. Common words for a knife or blade which are more readily known by parents include ‘Shiv’, ‘Shank’, ‘Switch’, ‘Blade’, ‘Sharp’, and ‘Dagger’. But the lesser known slang words include ‘Jammer’, ‘Ox’, ‘Hawk’, ‘Skeng’ ‘Wep’ and ‘Tool’. In a recent case, my client was a young lad arrested for possession of a knife after an off duty officer noticed the lad showing his knife off to his friends just outside the school grounds. I asked him why he had referred to the knife as ‘Skeng’ and he said he didn’t know but he’d looked up the slang words for knife on the internet, and ‘Skeng’ came up so he decided to use it so that his parents wouldn’t know what he was talking about and so that he could look good in front of his friends.
It’s not just young lads who are carrying knives, girls are increasingly carrying knives. The same reasons apply, for their protection and to look good in front of their friends. If their friends are carrying a knife, they don’t want to be the odd one out. The knives carried by girls are often smaller. My female clients have hidden a knife in their make up bag or in a box of sanitary towels. One commented to me that hiding a small folding blade in a bundle of sanitary towels is the easiest way to avoid detection as most teachers or parents won’t search them for fear of embarrassing the girl.
Some of the youths I represent in the youth court have found themselves on the periphery of a gang as they are easily led. These are often the youths who do not have a large circle of friends at school, are perhaps socially awkward or just want a bit of excitement. Gangs will quickly identify a youth who fits into these categories and use them. The youth may be encouraged to purchase one or more knives using their parent’s debit card or Paypal account. Websites may encourage purchases by offering 2 for 1 on knives, so it will not show up as a large amount on the debit card. The youth may be encouraged to hide the knife or carry it as they are not known to the police and will be less likely to be stopped. These youths are usually the least street wise and will hide the knife in their backpack or their locker at school, and will be the most likely to be caught. An excuse of “I was carrying the knife for someone else” is not a defence. The gang members won’t be facing court, but the duped youth will be facing custody.
The harsh reality of these youths carrying knives is that they are either likely to be killed or injured by their own knife or face custody. I hear many youths in the police station or court who now say “Oh, but I didn’t think the police were searching us anymore so I thought I wouldn’t get caught.” Wrong, stop and search is still being carried out by a lot of police officers, and there are other ways of being caught, the off duty officer who witnessed the knife being shown around, was picking his own daughter up from school. Knife sweeps at schools and in public areas are being carried out more frequently by the police and other authorities and a quick check on the school cctv can often identify who has hidden the knife behind the drainpipe or in the bushes at the back of the car park.
The Law on Knife Carrying
Anyone caught carrying a knife for the first time can receive a community or prison sentence. But under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, since July 2015 a youth over 16 who is guilty of carrying a knife in a public place on more than one occasion must be given at least 4 months’ Detention and Training Order, so that means the youth will serve at least 2 months in a young offenders institution and then at least 2 months under close supervision when they are released from custody. Anyone over 18 must be sentenced to at least 6 months in custody. This has created a two strikes rule in relation to carrying knives. Anyone caught with a knife for a second time will be locked up!
In reality, for many of the youths carrying knives, this could mean the end of aspirations of college, apprenticeship, or a job, for a moment of stupidity, by a youth trying to fit in with their mates or thinking that they will protect themselves from a gang attack by carrying a bread-knife!
So what can be done to combat this increase in knife carrying by those who have no previous contact with the police or courts? Parents and family members should speak to youths about knives, and the harsh reality. If a knife goes missing from the kitchen, question it. Listen out for the slang words, challenge a change in behaviour and increased secretism. Schools should be challenged about whether there is a knife problem, not just in school, but outside the grounds, are knife sweeps being carried out, if so what is being found? This will help to highlight the level of the danger to teenagers at that school.
Most police forces offer a knife amnesty bin, which provides a safe disposal of the knife with no questions asked. This should be used by parents who find a knife in their son or daughter’s possession, merely placing the knife elsewhere may result in the youth finding it and taking it back or giving it to their mate. Knife amnesty bins also help the police to gauge the amount of knives being carried in their area, and the types of knives.
Don’t ignore the knife crime problem. It sounds dramatic, but the harsh reality is that ignorance can cost a life.
Last night I was up until 3am working on a last minute defence case statement for a case which should have reached trial in the magistrates’ court on Friday, only it didn’t as the CPS didn’t serve the witness statements until a week previously and then wrote a scathing letter to the court when the defence had the audacity to ask for the witnesses to be present at trial. At this stage I could launch an attack on the CPS, and no doubt in time I will do, but the failure of this trial to go ahead is like many others in the courts every day, evidencing the fact that the criminal justice system no longer offers justice for anyone, victims, witnesses or defendants and is imploding. All the while it is imploding we are facing a daily barrage of comments from those civil servants and ministers who have never even set foot in a police station or court room telling us that if we were more efficient with our working the criminal justice system would work just fine. I swear if I hear this one more time I am likely to become my own client.
Here is a sample day in the magistrates’ court for me, and I know I am not alone in this ‘efficient working’ daily experience.
* the CPS prosecutor not turning up until 11am (and that’s not their fault as the local offices have been closed and some now have to cross into a different county and travel an extra 25 miles to get to work), and then realising they don’t have the right file;
* a police officer attending straight after a night shift (actually let’s make it after 9 night shifts in a row, it should be 5, but there are so many officers on sick leave or driving round during the day to diary appointments which the public either don’t remember or can’t make as they have to go to work). The officer will be told that they are not needed at court and asked ‘didn’t you get the memo cancelling your attendance at court?’. Had there still been witness care units in police stations, the officer may have been notified, but with witness care units at such a depleted state, the memo will still be buried under all the other memos that the staff have not yet managed to get to.
* not to worry, the police officer will be needed anyway, as the victim and civilian witnesses have not arrived. The officer will be asked to go and see if they can collect the witnesses. Hmm… The first problem with that is that in many areas there are now not enough cars, the officer will have been dropped at court by a colleague and have to make their own way back..don’t forget the cars are needed for the diary appointments that no one keeps! But even if a car is available, the witnesses are unlikely to be at home. They work and we’re not warned to attend court today so have not booked the time off, another unjust result of complete witness care units being made redundant again. But not to worry as there is a witness care unit in the next county, they can help..oh but they are all off on stress leave due to the pressure of having to do twice the work with a quarter of staff;
* Que the court staff, can they print out the file for the prosecutor as they will have received a copy at the first hearing. Unfortunately the court doesn’t have any working photocopiers at the moment, and even if it did, there is no paper in them….at least ‘efficiency’ is benefitting the rain forests.
* all of this is immaterial in any event as my client is 15 years old, being held in secure accommodation and hasn’t arrived. The magistrates ask that the usher makes a phone call to find out about this situation, oh but sadly there are no longer any ushers in the court, ‘efficient working’ put a stop to that. Hence the court clerk has to make a call, but the court can’t sit without the court clerk so the magistrates have to leave the court and sit outside doing nothing while the calls are made. Now there is efficiency for you!
* unfortunately the Youth Offending Team can’t help us in the search for my client, their computers are down, they have been for the past week and no one seems inclined to fix them….no doubt G4S have already bought new computers in anticipation of their take over. But after half an hour we trace my client to secure accommodation 55 miles away, the closer accommodation was closed down earlier this year as it was too costly…imagine that, a centre for vulnerable youths not being able to make a profit. Anyway, we are told that my client will not be coming to court as there are no staff to bring him. They are running on a skeleton staff of two as that’s all the current funding will provide, and if one member of staff accompanies my client, that will leave the other member looking after six vulnerable youths on their own.
* the end result is that no trial will go ahead today. But not to worry, this is a legal aid case so I will get paid….oh, hang on a minute, I only get paid for advocacy now, and not attendance, and there was no advocacy. So that is nil £ for me today, but I’m not sure it would have made a difference anyway, the Legal Aid Authority doesn’t seem to be paying bills at the moment. My last communication from them was 8 weeks ago, relating to a case which was finished over a year ago and which had to go for adjudication of fees. I was notified that after a year the adjudicator had made a decision, but there weren’t enough staff at the Legal Aid Authority to type it up and approve the payment, and therefore they would get back to me when they could…. I am not holding my breath on that one!
*but at least my travel to court will be paid? Ah.. Back to the adjudication, apparently taking the train to court at the cost of £8.40 return and a journey of 45 minutes each way is not very ‘efficient’ when I could get a bus for £2.60 return, and it only takes 2 hours each way. Hence, the adjudication was to cut my travel costs by £5.80, and I am sure that the time spent by the adjudicator and the Legal Aid Authority staff ( when they finally get to my claim) will have been worth the £5.80, although let’s face it, if they spend more than 10 minutes on the adjudication they will be working at a loss.
All the while, the Government which is telling us we must be more ‘efficient’ and that those of us working in the criminal justice system are to blame, is wasting a vast amount of money on a Public Defender Service, which is not wanted or needed, but which is an example of the Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice throwing their toys out of the pram when those in the criminal justice system fight back against the cuts.
I am a criminal lawyer and always will be, and I am a fighter, but this Government is consistently knocking me down and I fear that soon I and all the others who have made a career within the criminal justice system will no longer have the fight to get back up. I am in a very fortunate position, I am self employed, and I know that the solicitors who instruct me will not refuse to do so anymore on the basis of this blog. Many of my colleagues in the criminal justice system are not so lucky, whistleblowing policies seem to be a waste of paper. Those in the police, CPS and Court Service who are speaking out are finding themselves disciplined or sidelined, living in fear that if they speak out they may no longer be able to afford their rent or their mortgage. The bosses who are supposed to protect them are so ‘efficiency’ target driven that the implied term of trust and confidence only seems to exist in the employee/employer relationship and not the other way round.
I’m not looking for sympathy, just that those of us in the criminal justice system continue our fight, and support each other, as that is the only way we will prevent the implosion of the criminal justice system and ensure at least a certain amount of justice for those who are unfortunate enough to become part of it.
ATTEMPT TO TAKE PYRO INTO A FOOTBALL MATCH AND THE NEXT THING YOU COULD BE SEEING IS THE INSIDE OF A PRISON CELL
There is no doubt about it, the use of pyro to some fans is exciting. Photos of smoke bombs and flares being used at European matches give the impression of a colourful and high adrenaline crowd of fans.
Whether or not the use of smoke grenades (or plumber’s smoke tabs), flares and fireworks gives the game a better atmosphere, they are banned from English football, and without a doubt the courts do not see that same colourful, high adrenaline atmosphere. The starting point for a court considering the sentence for someone who has attempted to enter a stadium with pyro is 3 months in prison. In many cases it is very difficult to persuade the courts to come down from this 3 month figure. Add onto this the fact that it is highly likely that a court will impose a football banning order for at least 3 years (as this is the minimum that a court can impose) and may go as high as 10 years, and a fan’s days of watching football anywhere but in their living room for at least the next 3 years are over. The prison record doesn’t look good to any employer, and any chance of coaching or refereeing even a local kids league is given the Red Card due to the fact the offence of possession of the smoke grenade and the prison sentence and the football banning order will all appear on a Criminal Records Bureau (now Banning and Disbarring Service) check.
Look again at the wording in italics above, a fan doesn’t have to let off a flare in the stadium to fall foul of the law, mere possession on entry is sufficient. The law doesn’t distinguish between smoke grenades, flares and fireworks, they are all treated with the same severity. Nor does it distinguish between the possession and letting off the pyro.
The situation for under 18s is even worse. Possession of a smoke grenade or flare in any public place is a criminal offence. Hence a fan who is under the age of 18 and who has a smoke bomb in their pocket as they walk through town or on the train on the way to a match is committing an offence. This places some youths in a very difficult position. Imagine the scenario, on the coach on the way to the match, the youth succumbs to peer pressure from a fellow fan to take a smoke grenade “come on, it will be fun, look you take the blue and I will take the red, its only 3 quid”. The youth then exits the coach and decides that the smoke grenade is not a good idea and approaches a steward or police officer to ask how to dispose of the smoke bomb. At that stage they are admitting to committing an offence, they are in a public place and have a smoke grenade in their possession! A 15 year old with no previous convictions, who has never been in trouble with the police before, suddenly finds themselves arrested, in a police cell and facing a criminal record. Even a fixed penalty notice or reprimand given in the police station will appear on their CRB check. With competition for university and jobs so competitive for youths, a CRB will probably means that this youth goes to the back of the queue. Oh and they will no doubt be banned from attending football matches, even if they do not end up with a football banning order issued by the courts as the matter was dealt with in the police station, the police share their arrest information with the football club so the club will issue their own ban.
As a lawyer representing football fans, I have concerns about all fans being arrested for pyro possession and use but in particular the criminalisation of youths. Whether or not I agree with the law as it stands, until Parliament changes it, possession of pyro remains an offence. For this reason I have worked with Northamptonshire Police to set up a trial of pyro amnesty bins outside the Sixfields Stadium at certain matches over April and May 2014. Northampton Town and Coventry City Football Clubs have given their full support for these bins, and it is hoped that this will not only prevent pyro being taken into or used in Sixfields, by home and away fans, but also will promote the fact that pyro is illegal at football matches. This leaflet explains more.. Are you a footie fan? Do you know there are special laws relating to you?
The amnesty bins will be placed outside the turnstiles and will be highly visible, and will not be monitored by police of CCTV, nor will any pyro inside be checked for fingerprints or DNA. But anyone who is caught in possession of pyro inside the stadium will be arrested. With the pyro bins outside there will be no excuse for anyone to have pyro inside the stadium. Lets hope that these bins are a success and that it will help prevent this needless criminalisation and banning of fans.
Particularly if you are a parent or carer for a youth who attends football matches, please pass the message to them that pyro is illegal and the inside of a cell in a youth offending institution could be exactly where they are heading if caught with pyro…and that it not scaremongering or exaggeration…its reality.
Here is the leaflet advertising the trial Northamptonshire police pyro amnesty bin trial-3. The amnesty bins will be in place at the Sixfields Stadium at the following matches:
- 18th April 2014 – Coventry City v Swindon Town
- 21st April 2014 – Northampton Town v Portsmouth
- 26th April 2014 – Coventry City v Wolves
- 3rd May2014 – NorthamptonTown v OxfordUnited
Any queries about the amnesty bin trial can be directed to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via this blog, or Pc Nick Price at email@example.com
Is £52.50 too much to ask of the tax payer to ensure a 16 year old is released from jail and able to sit her GCSEs? Why the Save UK Justice campaign is so important.
Once again I am wading into the legal aid debate. This blog is not aimed at lawyers, what I have to say in this blog is nothing new to them. But this will be new to the majority of the public who are being bombarded with misinformation by the Ministry of Justice about the legal aid bill. This is a longwinded explanation, but please bear with it. The Ministry of Justice has added a response to the Save UK Justice epetition set up by criminal lawyers. In that response it is stated that the firms given the contracts for legal aid work will have to show they have competent and capable lawyers. In my eyes, competent and capable is not enough, those of us who have been doing this work for years do it because we are committed to our clients, and I like to think that all the criminal lawyers I know are way above competent and capable – they are experienced, passionate and dedicated, they understand that with clients, the law is actually only a small part of the service.
Last week I was in the youth court representing a 16 year old youth (X) who had been charged with an offence of violence on the basis of a drive by identity carried out by a shaken and upset teenage victim. X had been remanded in custody. I arrived at court, to find X’s very distraught parents, and quite understandably so. Their child who had never been in trouble before, had been held in the police station overnight – and that in itself was enough to send mum over the edge. Her child had been locked in a cell all night, on their own, in a large police station in an area where hardened criminals are arrested daily. Worse still, X was a good student, predicted A and B grades in GCSE exams, one of which was taking place that day!
In the cells I met X. To use the phrase ‘a rabbit in headlights‘ is an understatement. Having been held in the police station all night, and then transferred in a prison van to a cell in the court, searched in the police station, and again in the court cells, denied an opportunity to speak to mum and dad, and denied the use of the phone, and then told that the case would be ‘heard when its heard’, by the time I arrived in the cells, just after 9am, so much damage had been done it took me 15 minutes just to calm X down enough to get any sense out of her. It took another 30 minutes to get all of the information I needed out of her. Anyone who has teenage children or who regularly deals with teenagers will understand that the task of drawing information from them is not a simple task, made even worse when it is accompanied by sobbing at regular intervals and the need for constant reassurance that X would not have to go to prison.
Having obtained the information I needed from X and carried out more reassurance, and requested that a female custody officer in the cells take X a drink and sit with her for a while just to keep a check on her, I headed back up to see mum and dad. I had to then start the whole reassurance again with mum who bombarded me with questions – Was X ok? Had X eaten breakfast? Had I told X that mum and dad were there for her? In the meantime, dad paced the floor, getting more and more agitated and frustrated. I set dad on the task of contacting the school and finding out what could be done about X missing the GCSE exam, and calmed mum by asking her to tell me more about X.
In between this, I had passed word to the court that I was ready to get X into court as soon as possible, and had negotiated with the Prosecutor that this was not a case where X needed to be remanded in custody, and agreed bail conditions. X’s case was called on by 11.30am and I explained to the court what I had found out about X, how I saw weaknesses in the Prosecution case, not least the fact that the victim did not get a good look at her attacker’s face, but could describe the attacker’s clothing and bag. What she had actually described was a school uniform and bag which which was worn by at least 500 girls in that area. In which case it was highly probable that the victim had picked out X on the basis of the uniform and the bag and nothing more. In addition, X’s future was in jeopardy as she had a place at college to study A Levels but would lose that if she could not sit her GCSE’s, and I was very concerned about X’s wellbeing even after one night in a cell.
X was released on bail, with the next court date set for a time that did not interfere with the rest of her GCSE exams, and was released from the court in sufficient time to get to school and sit her exam.
As X is a youth, she was entitled to legal aid for my handling of her case. My legal aid fee for that morning was £52.50 (including my £9 travel). I do not profess that I am worth more than £52.50, nor do I think I did anything more than any of my criminal legal aid colleagues would have done, but I do think that to be good value and not a waste of tax payer’s money, ensuring that X was able to get to her GCSE exam and preventing a young life being damaged (possibly beyond repair) both educationally and emotionally.
Hence, when the Ministry of Justice makes noises about ‘Fat Cat’ lawyers and the highest legal aid bill in the World, it is interesting to note that they cannot back it up with examples, yet myself and my criminal legal aid colleagues can provide thousands of examples such as these….the real people that the cuts will affect. Ask yourself, if it was your 16 year old in the cells, would you want them to be given a representative who is merely competent and capable, or alternative a dedicated, experienced criminal lawyer who cares….
X’s dad sent me a text…’can you send me the link to the petition….can’t put a value on your service…priceless 🙂 ” So here is the link… if you want to be able to choose your lawyer, and don’t want the expertise to be replaced with a representative from a large corporation who is classed as ‘competent and capable’ please sign this epetition and pass it to others… Save UK Justice epetition
It has been questioned why we are fighting so hard to get to the 100,000 signatures on this epetition. The Ministry of Justice intends to implement these cuts via secondary legislation, which means it does not have to be voted on in either the House of Commons or House of Lords. Hence the only way we can get a proper debate in Parliament on these proposed cuts is to get to 100,000 signatures. Please don’t let the Government bypass democracy and introduce these cuts without a vote.
Finally, in typical lawyer disclaimer style…some of the case details have been changed to further protect the identify of X.
If you have read this far…thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings!
“I didn’t ask for a lawyer as I have not done anything wrong”
“The police said that it would take a while for the duty lawyer to arrive and I just wanted to get the interview over and done with and get out of the police station”
“I took the caution as I wanted to get out of the police station”
If I had £1 for every time I have heard these comments from a client, I would be sitting on a beach somewhere hot and sunny now rather than writing this!
The Police and Criminal Evidence Act provides the right to a lawyer, either one that you request or a duty lawyer. The reason for this is not just to advise on the criminal law it is to protect your interests in the police station. Sadly the TV only ever portrays the work of a lawyer in the police station as sitting in on the interview, but in reality your interests are much more than just making sure you are dealt with fairly in interview.
The way police interviews are portrayed on TV, is very similar to what happens in real life. The interviews are all audio recorded and many are video recorded as well, and you can request copies of the tapes from the police. Hence, although I would recommend that anyone who attends an interview has a lawyer present, it can often be more important to have a lawyer representing you outside of the interview room.
The interview is only one aspect of a person’s time in the police station. The length of time spent in the cells, the bail conditions, whether a caution or fixed penalty notice is offered (and whether the offer should be accepted), are all matters that a lawyer can help with. In general, people who have a lawyer spend less time in custody in the cells, have less strict bail conditions, or are more likely to be released and bailed to attend court instead of being held in custody to attend court.
While it is possible to challenge police bail in court, it can take a few days for the court to list the matter and in the meantime the bail conditions may be so strict that a person effectively cannot go outside their front door for risk of breaching their bail conditions. Hence, it is better if a lawyer makes representations to the police at the time. Conditions such as ‘not to enter a town X’ or ‘not to travel on public transport’ are commonly imposed on those who are unrepresented, and are so easily breached especially if a person has to enter the town or use the train or bus to get to work or to visit family.
The person who accepts the police bail conditions just because they want to get out of the police station will often not realise the consequences of such restrictions, and that if they breach the bail conditions, not only can they be arrested, but they can end up in front of the court. On a breach of bail, in certain situations, it is open to the court to decide that the detainee should be remanded in custody…they are sent to prison on remand until the case is dealt with by the court.
This sounds extreme and for most who are given police bail, this never happens, but in general it is more likely to happen to those who did not have a lawyer at the police station, and who didn’t think it could happen to them.
Likewise, the quickest way to get out of the cells is to ask for a lawyer. Once booked into the cells, there is a time limit on the amount of time a person can be held in custody. This is known as ‘the custody clock’. It is worth remembering that the custody clock starts ticking from the time a person enters the custody suite at the police station and not from the time the lawyer arrives, so in general, the police will make the call to the lawyer straight away, and will chase if the lawyer has not arrived within a reasonable period of time. Waiting for a lawyer is highly unlikely to extend the amount of time a person is held in the cells.
Although a caution or fixed penalty notice will seem like ‘no big deal’ when it is being offered, in reality it can be a huge deal. A caution can affect employment, will show up on a Criminal records Bureau check, and can be used against a person in the future. I see many cases where someone has taken a caution or fixed penalty notice merely due to their haste to be released from the cells, they are then arrested for another matter a few years later and this caution or fixed penalty notice is used against them to show their anti-social nature. These cautions and fixed penalty notices show up on a police national computer and can be used in court as evidence of previous criminal history.
Alternatively it may be that an offence has been committed, but that it is quite minor, and the lawyer can make a request for a caution in circumstances where the police would not readily offer one. This means a person avoids being placed under bail conditions and avoids going to court.
For those of you wondering if this is just a promotional post from a lawyer trying to get more work, it is actually the opposite. I am not a police station representative, and the work I undertake in court is often in response to people not having representation in the police station.
But if you are ever unfortunate enough to be arrested, please think of me in my ‘you have the right to a lawyer…so use it‘ T-shirt!
As a defence lawyer I am often asked how I cope with representing those defendants charged with the most serious crimes, in particular rapes and murders. Much of my work is with defendants facing the death penalty in Florida, so they are alleged to have committed the most heinous of murders.
For me, the answer is simple, I believe that everyone is entitled to a fair trial and that involves legal representation by a person committed to their case. In all my cases, it is not my role to judge the guilt or innocence of my client, that is for the magistrates or jury. My role is to review the evidence and to advise my client on the evidence as it stands. I will often advise a client that based on the evidence, I consider that a jury will find them guilty, however the decision remains theirs as to whether they plead guilty or take the case to trial. They have a right to a trial, even if the evidence is stacked up against them, and I can quote many high profile cases where the media portrayal of the evidence was such that it was assumed that the defendant would be found guilty, yet the jury found otherwise.
I believe very strongly that a client should have the right over their own destiny, and if they want to take their case to trial, even with the odds stacked against them, that is their decision. Who am I to dictate to them how they should behave, if I have advised them of the consequences as I see them, it is up to the client to decide how to deal with those consequences.
Nowadays I choose to act solely for the defence, however in the past I have prosecuted and defended, and as such I am fully aware that not all my clients are innocent, and that in many cases there is a victim involved. The impact of the crime on the victim should not be ignored. I know of some lawyers who will always try to justify their client’s offending, and will try to vilify the victim. That is not a practice I admire. For one, the fact that there is a victim means that as well as the defendant, there is at least one other person whose life has been affected by the crime (and I put in this manner as it is rare for false accusations to be made in court, so there has usually been a crime committed, what is questionable is whether my client committed the offence). Secondly, to ignore the impact on the victim means that the feelings and empathy of the jury is also being ignored, and this is dangerous, a lack of understanding of the jury means that a defendant may not be receiving the best advice on how the evidence against him or her is going to be perceived by the jury.
I can sleep at night as I know I give my clients the best representation that I can, and I hope that this results in them receiving a fair trial if they decide to plead not guilty, or a fair sentencing hearing if they decide to plead guilty. I am not perfect and they may be cases where I have misjudged the impact of evidence, or miscalculated a jury, however I always fight for my client no matter who they are or their alleged offense. If that means I earn some bad publicity on the way, due to the offences charged, then so be it, this is the profession I have chosen, and I consider myself to be fortunate to be able to do a job I love.
About this time last year I sat in a conference room in a hotel in New York surrounded by lawyers, homicide and vice cops, and journalists, while an academic demonstrated the wonders of a new lie detector test he was developing – the use of MRI scans to test a person’s truthfulness. In essence, he was showing us images of the brain and explaining that when the subjects lied, certain parts of their brain glowed red on the scan and that this could be transferred to the use of MRI scans in the criminal justice system, if a person responded to a question and a certain section of their brian glowed red on the screen then they were lying.
As I looked around the room I was amazed at how easily all these delegates who, by nature of their professions should have been overly inquisitive and skeptical, were lapping up this information. When I raised my hand and asked if anyone else was feeling as uncomfortable as I with these findings, based on tests with those who were not people under criminal investigation, I was greeted with a looks of distain. With the exception of a homicide cop, no one else in the room seemed to have a problem with the suggestion that this was the ‘future’ of interviewing defendants.
While I accept that I am not scientifically minded and as such can be skeptical of a lot of scientific findings, my main issues with this new lie detector model were that the testing was done on students, in a controlled environment, who had volunteered to take part in the research, they were all at least college level educated, and had been given a script, and had then been told whether they had to lie or tell the truth from the script. There had been no testing of defendants of low intelligence, placed in the extremely stressful environment of a police interview room, who were sleep deprived, had recently taken illicit or prescribed drugs. Neither had there been any testing of defendants who had good reason to lie to protect themselves or others, and who knew that they were in danger of facing a lengthy prison sentence.
Even worse, the fact that all of these people, who should have known better than just to accept findings without questioning them, had collectively accepted the findings, made me realize that a jury would be unlikely to question any of the findings. If the scan showed a brain glowing red, the subject would have lied, and hence the jury would have no reason not to find them guilty.
And that is the reason that the lie detector must be viewed with skepticism, it is rarely tested in the exact environment. I have spoken to many defendants in the USA who have been the subject of a lie detector, many felt scared of the physical element of the test, having wires attached to a cuff on their arm and chest. The demeanor of the person carrying out the test has a big impact on many defendants, some felt that they were being encouraged to answer in a certain way by the machine operator. The format of the questions can have a big impact on the answers given by the defendant. Finally the analysis requires someone to make an assessment of the findings, I have experience of the same defendant answering the same questions in three different tests and each assessor came up with a different conclusion.
In theory, the tests that have been carried out on sex offenders may have produced some results which can be seen as positive, but can they actually also be determined as truthful? And if the lie detector is introduced in this area, how long will it be before it is introduced into the criminal justice system in other areas. Beware the dazzling effect of the mumbo jumbo…..
The case of Miller and Jackson made the headlines in the USA and Europe last week, following the US Supreme Court decision that juveniles sentenced to Life Without Parole for homicide offences should be entitled to a new sentencing hearing. On first perusal this looks like a ground breaking decision of the US Supreme Court, but in reality it will do very little for most of the inmates who were sentenced to Life Without Parole while they were juveniles, other than provide many with false hope of release.
The circumstances of Kuntrell Jackson are very similar to those of Derek Bentley – all that separates them is a big pond and 60 years. Kuntrell Jackson was 14 at the time of the homicide, he and two others decided to rob a video store. En route to the store he realized that one of the others (Derek Shields) was carrying a firearm. Kuntrell Jackson waited outside of the store while the other two went inside. Derek Shields pointed the gun at the store attendant and asked her to give up the money. While the gun was still pointed at the attendant, Kuntrell Jackson entered the store, his version of what happened next is that he said to the others “I thought you all was playing..” the State version of events is that he said to the attendant “we ain’t playing”. Shields then shot and killed the attendant.
In most US States, felony murder attributes murder to all persons who had an intention to be involved in a felony and during the course of that felony a homicide occurred, regardless of whether the person actually killed or intended to kill. The fact Kuntrell Jackson had planned to rob the video store, and during that robbery the attendant was killed by another was sufficient for transferred malice, and for him to be sentenced to Life Without Parole for homicide.
The Opinion of the US Supreme Court in Jackson (and Miller) makes it clear that it has not given Jackson a get out of jail free card. The court’s opinion is very prescriptive, and much more narrow that its previous decision (Graham) concerning Life Without Parole for non-homicide offenses. The court has made it clear that Jackson’s case should be remanded, so that the court can determine Jackson’s intent with regard to the homicide,and reconsider the sentence. The US Supreme Court even went so far as to indicate that if Jackson did have the intent for Shields to kill the store attendant, then Life Without Parole may still be an appropriate sentence. Justices Breyer and Sotomayor went further and stated that ‘..this type of transferred malice is not sufficient to justify the intent to murder that could subject a juvenile to a sentence of life without parole…..The only juveniles who may constitutionally be sentenced to life without parole are those convicted of homicide offenses who ‘kill or intend to kill’. These Justices opinions are persuasive, but not binding, and in States where the courts were happy to rule that transferred malice is sufficient to lock a kid up for life, it is highly unlikely the courts will now look kindly on these persuasive views.
Hence, Jackson, and many others like him have another chance of putting their case across in the hope of some kind of reduction in sentence, at least they are getting chance of release at some stage in their life, a chance that Derek Bentley never received.
The State has locked them up in a 6ft cell and thrown away the key. Juveniles and Solitary Confinement in Florida.
With the current interest both in the USA and Europe in the practice of keeping inmates in solitary confinement, I thought I would share some of the thoughts and issues raised by some of the juveniles in Florida who have been sentenced to life without parole and who have spent time in solitary confinement.
Over the last two years I have worked with young men, who were all sentenced to Life Without Parole for non-homicide offenses they committed as juveniles. Most pleaded guilty to the offenses, thinking that they would get a plea deal, and all ended up with the maximum sentence the court court give. While the offenses for which they were sentenced should not be diminished, in at least two of the cases it is questionable whether the young men were actually responsible for the offenses. However, in these cases, both confessed, and their appeals against conviction have been heard and dismissed, so that avenue of argument is no longer open to them. What is open to them is the right to ask the court for another sentencing hearing due to the fact the US Supreme Court in Florida vs. Graham ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of their sentence being reviewed to take into account their maturity.
One of the young men has to be one of the most difficult clients I have dealt with in my 20+ years of working in the criminal justice system. He frustrates me beyond belief, but every time I am at the end of my patience with him, I pick up the report prepared for his appeal against his sentence, which details the first 15 dysfunctional years of his life, and then his time in jail and prison, including extended periods of time in solitary (in some years he spent 10 or 11 months in solitary, only to spend a few weeks in general population, and then be sent straight back to solitary due to his behavior towards other inmates or corrections officers). I have calculated that of his total 12 years incarcerated, he has spent 8 of those in solitary confinement. The State gave up on him 12 years ago, locked him in a 6ft cell and threw away the key, I will not allow myself to so the same.
In all of the cases I have dealt with the offenses have been serious – rapes, armed robberies, and attempted murders. All the juveniles were treated as adults by the courts and therefore were detained in adult jails prior to conviction. All were experiencing jail for the first time and were held in solitary confinement during their time in jail. This was justified as providing protection to the juveniles, however in reality it was the start of a regime which dehumanized them. With 24 hour a day lock up for most days, these juveniles who were still in the process of developing and maturing were denied any contact with anyone other than the corrections officer who escorted them to the exercise yard two or three times a week, or less if it was raining. Even their exercise was taken in isolation, hence no chance to play basketball or bond with others experiencing the jail system for the first time. Peer contact which is so important to an adolescent’s development was denied, and even visits from family and friends did not provide the support and nurturing and reassurance required by most adolescents, due to the glass separating them from their visitor.
The recurring comments which came from these juveniles was that they gave up at this stage, they no longer had any interest in their case, or what their lawyers were telling them. They just wanted the isolation to stop. They wanted to get out of the tiny cell, painted grey, without windows, and where they were totally cut off from the outside World. Two of these juveniles attempted suicide in their early years in jail.
The fact that cases can take years to come to trial in Florida added to the despair of these inmates. The idea of having to spend the next four or five years in these conditions was a strong factor in some of them deciding to plead guilty. One inmate stated “if I pled guilty I knew I would go to prison and into general pop[ulation]’. Hence a motivating factor in these plea decisions was not whether they were guilty or innocent, but that they would be able to associate with others if they pleaded guilty.
For the majority of these inmates, home life and the family bond had not been very strong prior to them being incarcerated, and could possibly be argued as one of the reasons they had ended up being charged with these offenses in the first place. The longer the inmates languished in jail, the less they received visits from their family and friends. It is a recurring problem for the juveniles facing Life Without Parole, that those on the inside are cut off by those on the outside who want to get on with their lives, and give up hope of the inmate ever being released. In fact, with the exception of one of the inmates I have met, the only family contact is a birthday and christmas card and the occasional $30 added to the inmate’s commissary account.
While many of the juveniles had minor mental health problems when they first entered the jail system, mainly due to drug abuse, they did not exhibit serious mental health problems. However, by the time they were sentenced, over half had been assessed as having poor cognitive reasoning and exhibiting anti-social behavior, all of which was deemed to be a factor in justifying sentencing a juvenile aged 13 to spent the rest of their life in prison with no opportunity of a parole review. Never was it considered by the court that the reason the juvenile was exhibiting this behavior was due to the State incarceration. The State had given up on these juveniles, they were described by the Prosecutors as ‘bad’ or ‘untreatable’ or ‘damaged beyond repair’. Even worse, in most cases the defense lawyer did not stand up for their client and say that the State’s solitary confinement was the problem. If the lawyers had also given up on these juveniles, who else was going to care.
Florida vs. Graham was decided in May 2010. By this time, most of the juveniles sentenced to Life Without Parole had become adults. The task when trying to persuade the courts to reduce the sentence of these inmates is to show the courts that they are no longer dangerous and can be released back into society. That is not an easy task when the State has managed to dehumanize these young men, has made then anti-social. How can a young man who has experienced sustained periods of solitary confinement in prison, with nothing more than one hour of recreational time once every forty days, be expected to fit back into society and live and mix around his peers?
Psychiatric evaluations of these inmates now all indicate that they exhibit psychiatric problems – no wonder considering the way they have been treated and the lack of diagnosis and medication they receive in prison. These psychiatric problems provide the Prosecution with the justification for arguing that the inmate should remain in prison. The US Supreme court decision was that a Life Without Parole sentence for juveniles is unconstitutional, it did not say that a 70 or 80 year sentence is unconstitutional, not did it say that consecutive sentences were unconstitutional. Hence the fear that in some of these cases a Life Without Parole sentence will be replaced with two 40 year sentences, to be served consecutively.
During one visit with a prison inmate, he described to me the fact that since he had heard about his appeal, he had worked hard on his behavior and had requested that he be moved out of the highest level of confinement (CMI), to the second level (there are three levels of confinement in Florida state prisons). He was so pleased with himself as he was moved to the 2nd confinement level (CMII) and this meant he could go to the tv room f our times a week, and was allowed a two hour visit each time. He had not seen the tv for the previous two years due to being in CMI, where only a radio was allowed, and where he was only allowed 3 books a week and no commissary items other than stamps and writing paper. Sadly, a few days after my visit, he had an argument with another inmate, who he said stole his potato chips, and ended up back in CMI, where he remains to this day.
While the actions of the Senators in their review are encouraging, it does nothing for the forgotten incarcerated youth, who have entered adulthood as a prison number, with no one but themselves for company, in a space where they can stand in the middle of the room and touch the walls both sides, and where daylight is something rarely seen, and when they do see it, they can do little more than shuffle into it as they are shackled hands and feet.
Click here for the Florida Statute on Close Confinement/Solitary Confinement and the restrictions it places on the inmate ☞ Close%20Management%20Statute