Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Judge of Character

Part of what I do involves covering Court. By this I mean Court proceedings. Here I get to see the detritus, the lowest members of my community, in all their dismal glory. Obviously there are times when you come across good people who have done bad things that are out of character but predominantly it's a continual procession of the same sort of offenders. Drugs, drunks, thugs, and thieves sort of sums it up. Every day the District Court is submerged in a tidal wave of shoplifters, drunk drivers, drug possessors, wife beaters etc etc. Most of them have offended before and most will offend again regardless of what penalty the Judge hands down.

As an example there was a young man the other day that admitted stealing three jackets from a local store. The value was about $150. He was 18 years old (looked about 14) and had only just got out after serving a six-month prison sentence. His lawyer made the usual request for the matter to be dealt with by way of a fine. That's what he got but only after the Judge questioned the value of imposing a fine on someone who already owed $5000 in fines. She also pointed out he had an unenviable record having regularly appeared before the Youth Court and was now ending up in adult jurisdiction on a regular basis. The only thing that saved him was a favorable report from his probation officer. That's what life is like everyday in District Court One. That story could be applied to many of those that appear; lots of priors, outstanding fines, and promises that they're committed to changing their ways. Odds are that young man hasn't had his last Court appearance.

It's a bleak and depressing environment and one can only wonder at the resilience of the duty solicitors that have to deal with this endless depressing parade every working day. I'm lucky, I just report on it and can escape easily. They don't have that luxury.

Now let's deal with the so-called "popular opinion" on what to do with these offenders. It’s no secret that there’s a large body of the public that are of the attitude “lock ‘em up and throw away the key”. An understandable sentiment but is it one that would return a net benefit to the community? I think not. From what I’ve observed (and a lot of lawyers will probably back me on this) what our prisons are best at doing is breeding worse criminals. Offenders come out much nastier than they were than when they went in. Spend enough time observing the goings on in a District Court and you’ll see what I mean. Put a person in a cage and he’ll behave like an animal. Studies have been done that prove it’s actually cheaper to rehabilitate an offender than just let him rot in a cell. A prison stay is quite costly to the taxpayer so if you can stop the buggers from offending you actually end up saving money in the long run. Don’t get me wrong I’m not preaching a liberal attitude towards all offenders, as there are some genuinely evil people who do need to be locked up. What I’m saying is let’s just dial back a little on the knee-jerk reactions.