On the street
Police stop and search powers have been described by a senior policeman as ‘a contact sport for officers’. They have featured centrally in complaints of police racism. It was a vast stop and search operation, Operation Swamp ’81, which sparked the Brixton uprising of that year. Even the City of London ‘ring of plastic’ stop and search anti-terrorist operation in the wake of the 1993 Bishopsgate bomb netted a disproportionate number of black ‘IRA suspects’. This year, Tottenham MP Bernie Grant condemned the abuse of civil rights after figures disclosed that 45 per cent of those stopped in his division were black, while black people comprised only 25 per cent of the population. A recent study by NACRO and the Haringey Police Consultative Committee found that, when police in Tottenham halved their stop and search operations, the clear-up rate for crime remained the same. Stop and search is a blunt policing instrument, the use of which inevitably leads to harassment.
The return of ‘sus’
This did not stop Labour capitalising on public sympathy for the widow of headmaster Philip Lawrence, after his fatal stabbing by a teenager, to introduce a private member’s bill, the Knives Bill, which gives senior police unlimited powers to order 24-hour stop and search operations in any area where they ‘reasonably believe’ people are carrying knives. Police in the east end of London invariably stopped and searched Asian youths for weapons of self-defence in the aftermath of racist attacks in Bethnal Green or Brick Lane in the 1970s; the Knives Bill institutionalises and legitimises this and in the hands of racist police, turns legitimate self-defence into gang warfare.
Another measure which could lead to more harassment of black people on the streets is the Protection from Harassment Bill, promised Tony Blair’s personal support. Designed to protect women whose ex-partners make their lives a misery by pursuing them after the relationship ends, the Bill creates a legal precedent in deeming the motivation of the ‘harasser’ irrelevant. Someone who causes harassment or distress to the same person twice, by actions which may include phoning, speaking or sending unwanted gifts, can be sent to prison for six months, even if they had no intention of causing distress. If they cause someone to fear for their personal safety, the person ‘harassed’ can get an injunction, breach of which can lead to up to five years imprisonment, once again regardless of the actual intention of the ‘harasser’. This concentration on the subjective feeling of the ‘harassed’ person creates the danger for black people of a return to ‘sus’, and the arrest-to-order of black people deemed to be making a nuisance of themselves.
The abolition of the infamous ‘sus’ law in 1981 was the result of sustained campaigning by black communities against the criminalisation of black youths who were waiting at bus stops, standing around or just walking in the street. Now, the danger of a revival of ‘sus’ comes from the politicians’ desire to get youths off the streets regardless of criminal intent. Jack Straw’s memorable attacks on ‘aggressive beggars and squeegee merchants’ were followed by Blair’s endorsement of ‘zero tolerance’ policing (which criminalises behaviour such as painting graffiti and dropping litter), which was in turn followed by Straw’s proposal to curfew young people off the streets. Between them, the main parties propose curfews and parental supervision orders which will make parents pay (in fines, electronic tagging and driving bans) for their children’s good behaviour.
The attack on youth culminates, for Labour, in Jack Straw’s proposal to reduce the age of criminal responsibility to make 10-year-old children as criminally culpable for their actions as adults.
With CCTV now part of the furniture in most town centres and other public places such as railway stations and sports stadia, those who ‘come to the attention of the police’ can have their every move scrutinised. And racist police will automatically have their eye on black youth. The Police Bill takes this targeting further. It will allow police to break into homes, meeting places, journalists’ and lawyers’ offices and doctors’ surgeries to plant listening devices, to search for and copy documents and other material clandestinely, with approval from a serving or retired judge, if a senior officer believes it would be useful to prevent or detect ‘serious crime’. The phrase covers anything from murder to criminal conspiracy to serious public order offences, drugs and illegal immigration. Chief constables’ rationale for refusing to exclude solicitors’ offices was that if they were excluded, criminals would all go there to plan their crimes. They added that they would bug any meeting where they thought a riot was being planned; this would presumably mean the automatic bugging of any black defence campaign meeting after (for example) a death in police custody, and the bugging of community activists’ homes on a regular basis.
Other, more obviously political surveillance will be carried out on refugees under the Police Bill provisions allowing the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) to conduct surveillance for any law enforcement agency in the world. The Turkish police have used the Danish police to collect information on Turkish dissidents in Denmark; this law will allow them, and other repressive regimes, to use British police in the same way. Another private member’s bill, the Jurisdiction (Conspiracy and Incitement) Bill, was designed to criminalise foreign dissidents like Mohamed al-Masari and Karamjit Chahal living in Britain, by making it an offence to plan, incite or conspire in Britain to commit an offence anywhere in the world. The Bill, which would have criminalised people such as Nelson Mandela, was supported by both main parties but was defeated when, with very few members of either party in the House of Commons, left-wing MPs forced a vote. It is expected to be reintroduced.
Recent legislation such as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1995 and the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Bill has created new categories of criminal. Ravers, squatters and participants in ‘trespassatory assemblies’ were all criminalised by the 1995 Act, while the 1996 Act criminalises people who help illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers, and those who employ immigrants who don’t have permission to work in Britain. The Act also forces a whole new class of people into a choice between destitution and hunger or crime, since rejectedasylum-seekers and those claiming asylum after their arrival are no longer eligible for any benefits, and can only get a roof and a meal, but no money for fares or anything else, from local authorities.
Of course, the purpose of the fines on employers is not to criminalise them but to persuade them to inform on immigrant job-seekers who don’t have permission to work. Joint operations between police, immigration officers and benefits staff are now common, and information exchange routine. Meanwhile, a series of poster campaigns exhorts us all as good citizens to spy on our neighbours and report them if they’re benefit cheats, or drug dealers, or child abusers, or ‘rats’, or whatever.
Labour would also have us get neighbours sent to prison for making too much noise, giving another green light to the housing-estate Alf Garnetts who make spurious complaints of rowdiness out of spite.
The criminal process
Despite claims to the contrary when the Bridgewater Three were released in February, false confessions, oppression and miscarriages of justice are more, not less likely now. Since the abolition of the right to silence by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1995, criminal suspects held in police stations have been under more pressure, as at trial an inference of guilt can be drawn from a failure to answer police questions. The Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act, which came into force on 1 April, allows prosecutors to withhold evidence they say is irrelevant while at the same time forcing a criminal accused to disclose his or her defence.
DNA evidence has been found to be seriously unreliable in certain cases involving black accused. But forensic evidence, whether DNA or fingerprints, has a mystique born of science which results in high conviction rates. Far from acknowledging this and improving reliability, fingerprint matching criteria are to be reduced, making the chances of false matching higher. Proposals to computerise facial recognition techniques (matching video images with photographs already on police files) adds the spurious authenticity of technology to fuzzy-image identification, resulting in more mistaken-identity miscarriage of justice cases, not less. The combined effect of less accurate, but increasingly relied-on technical evidence, the abolition of the right to silence and the uneven duties of disclosure on defence and prosecution make more wrongful convictions a certainty.
The chances of an acquittal for black suspects are far below those for white suspects, but are nevertheless far higher when they go for jury trial than when they are tried by magistrates in summary trial. This is so despite the fact that since 1989 there has been no jury challenging and no possibility of obtaining a racially balanced jury (except by chance). But now, Michael Howard has revived the discredited proposal of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice to remove the right of defendants to elect jury trial for a wide range of offences, including theft, burglary, moderately serious assaults, possession of drugs and low-value criminal damage. As the chairman of the Bar Council said in 1993, when the proposal was mooted by the RCCJ, if magistrates have the power to order summary trial, ‘unequal treatment of defendants’ will result, ‘favouring those whom society views as more respectable than others’. In other words, magistrates would allow white middle-class defendants to have a jury trial for a minor theft, but not a black unemployed defendant.
To prison – and beyond
The short-lived ‘prison doesn’t work’ policy, introduced in 1991 to replace prison with community service, was rapidly reversed by Michael Howard, who has presided over a dramatic increase of the prison population in the name of retributive justice. Rehabilitation is out, ‘lock em up and throw away the key’ is in. The prison population has expanded from about 48000 to 60000 in ten years; prisons are full to bursting, policestations are used for the overspill and ex-air force camps and holiday camps are being pressed into service as prisons and a prison ship has been bought by the Home Office from the USA.
The class-race divide in Britain already ensures that one-third of all young black people are processed by the criminal justicesystem by their late 20s. Already the incarceration rate for black people is nearly ten times the rate for white people, at over 1000 per 100000 of population compared with 135 per 100000. Howard’s sentencing laws, opposed by virtually all senior judges and voted down in the House of Lords, would exacerbate this trend. The Crime (Sentencing) Bill applies the US recipe of automatic life sentences to repeat violence and sex offenders, but while in the US it’s three strikes, here it’s two and you’re out. Other repeat offenders such as burglars will also get long minimum sentences, and there will be no remission for good behaviour or parole. Labour abstained in the Commons on a measure which is expected to increase the prison population by another 12000. The Lords won a measure of discretion back for sentencing judges, but the Bill’s main provisions survived.
And finally, just to complete the cycle of criminalisation, the Police Bill also contains provisions for vetting up to eight million job seekers, a move which Harry Fletcher, head of the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), says will ensure that most ex-offenders never work again when they come out of prison and will thus be tempted into a life of crime and punishment.
The model of criminal justice put forward by both main parties is retributive, and is based on an exclusive vision of society. They, the outsiders, commit crime; we, the insiders, must be protected from it, by ever more punitive measures. In a racist and class-ridden society, the outsiders are the poor and the black. The policies entrench division and exclusion and unless speedily reversed, will condemn another generation of black youth, as well as new target groups such as asylum-seekers and foreign dissidents.