On Thursday the 17th of November 2011 I observed Cambridge magistrates deal with a resident of the Riverside ECHG hostel on Willow Walk in central Cambridge.
The defendant was before the magistrates for a number of matters. He had previously pleaded guilty to an offence of battery. The court was told he had been walking with a friend down Fitzroy Street at 1:15am on the 17th of August and had asked a passer by if he wanted to play a game. The passer-by declined and the defendant hit them, causing injury. The defendant’s friend said: “you should have played his game”.
For the battery offence he had been sentenced to a community supervision order; but he had failed to turn up for meetings with the probation service as required by its terms.
The court I observed was also considering a missed court appearance (on the 7th of November) for which a medical note had not been provided and a charge of handling stolen goods which the defendant had also previously pleaded guilty to. The stolen goods were three packs of perfume taken from Superdrug valued in total at £83.97. The defendant had been seen on CCTV receiving the items from the person who stole them from the shop.
The defendant’s solicitor said that she had seen her client on the 7th of November, when he was last due in court, in his room at the Willow Walk hostel. He had an oral abscess for which he was taking antibiotics. While no medical note was available the court was offered the antibiotics as evidence of his illness. The magistrates accepted the word of the solicitor that her client had been really too ill to attend court.
The solicitor then explained that her client had a drug and alcohol problem. The court was told he was taking medication for the drug problem. The court which had previously sentenced the defendant had, the solicitor said, not ordered him to attend alcohol treatment as at that time he was homeless having been expelled from the hostel. The argument was that being homeless his life was too chaotic for it to be reasonable to expect him to be able to attend the treatment.
The defence solicitor said her client could deal with only one thing at a time. His previous priority had been to find somewhere to live and he had now achieved that through re-entry to the hostel. He now wanted to see what the court was going to decide in respect of his future and deal with that. The court was told the defendant had two “key workers” at the hostel, who he saw daily and met formally once a week, his solicitor said he attended those meetings as he realised the workers were trying to help him. The implication was that the defendant might now be able to cope with a supervision order including an alcohol treatment element.
The defendant’s solicitor argued against a curfew being imposed, saying her client suffered from anxiety and depression and sometimes needed to go for a walk during the night.
The magistrates briefly conferred without leaving the court. They explained to the defendant that what they were doing was a re-sentencing exercise and that they were revoking the previous sentence. The chair of the bench said “we are prepared give you the benefit of the doubt and give you another chance”. For the battery offence the sentence was a community order for supervision by the probation service for a period of 12 months with an alcohol treatment requirement for 6 months.
In relation to handling stolen goods the defendant was ordered to pay Superdrug £30.
The court heard the defendant was on incapacity benefit so a fine could not be collected via an “attachment” to his benefits. The defendant had other outstanding fines already, the court offered to consolidate them and the defendant agreed to pay (or continue to pay) them off at a rate of £5/week.
The alcohol treatment element of the sentence in Cambridge is provided by Addaction.
The “community order” in this case did not involve any community payback work it was just for “supervision”. I have observed courts previously where this has been described to magistrates as being a few meetings with probation early on in the sentence, maybe a couple in a week, leading to perhaps none at all in a typical week towards the end of the sentence.
I have also learnt from observing the court that the reason for making specific elements of an order for shorter periods than the supervision is so that the alcohol treatment can be given at some point within the 12 months the individual is under the supervision of the probation service. I’ve observed other courts where the magistrates have urged the start of the treatment as soon as possible, but with a sentence like this, essentially the probation service have six months in which to start the six month alcohol treatment. I would have liked to see magistrates ask when the treatment course could start and order it to be commenced as soon as possible.
I would like to see probation services including ours in Cambridgeshire operate in a much more transparent manner. We all need to understand what they are doing and what challenges they are facing. In May 2011 I received a commitment from the service that they would place the papers for their board meetings on their website they have yet to act on that.
Common assault and battery shall be summary offences and a person guilty of either of them shall be liable to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to both.
I note that when MPs were writing this law they didn’t add in “or a few meetings with the probation service”.
I think it is right that we tackle the underlying causes of crime, and clearly the best thing for this individual, for Cambridge, and for wider society, is for him to be helped tackle his drug, alcohol and other health problems.
However I’m concerned that here we have a serious violent crime and the sentence does not appear to contain any aspect of punishment; it is all focused on helping the criminal. I think sentences should both punish and seek to rehabilitate. Time and time again we see cases in Cambridge of violence, burglary, criminal damage etc. committed by those with drink and drug problems and those committing the offences are not punished, they are only sentenced to supervision and treatment. If others committed similar crimes they’d be punished according to the sentencing guidelines. I think whose drink and drug problems are leading them to crime ought be punished and required to attend services intended to help them with their addictions. We shouldn’t be sending out the message that if you’re addicted to drink or drugs you can get away with crime.
I would have liked this person to have left court with a proportionate element of punishment in their sentence (I don’t know enough about the punch and it’s consequences to say what that ought be, perhaps some community service as clearly the previous court thought just a supervision order was appropriate); I’d also like to see it made clear to the offender that punching random strangers on the streets of Cambridge is not acceptable and further violent behaviour would lead to him ending up in prison; I’d like that not to be an empty threat.
I am concerned though that the easiest, and typical, route of access to alcohol treatment appears to be through the courts. We need to make it easier for those who would benefit from the treatment offered. I just searched the Addaction website under the “find help” tab looking to see what is on offer for adults with drug problems in Cambridgeshire and got the response: “Sorry, there are no service items available at present”.
I would like to see someone, presumably a general practitioner with the relevant expertise, take a lead in helping this person address their health problems. Perhaps the court should have written to that person too to explain the impact their patient is having on wider society?