His Honour Judge Bowers has caused a furore, and the press are enjoying a feeding frenzy concerning his comments about burglary and bravery.
Without a transcript, we do not know precisely what he said, and more importantly, the special context of his remarks. Sentencing comments do have a dual role – a message to the public about the crime – and a message to the offender about their behaviour and how it impacts on society. It may be that Judge Bowers on this occasion, has got the balance wrong, or misjudged his audience.
Contrary to the press reporting, Judge Bowers’ comments in no way condoned burglary, nor applauded a perpetrator. Judge Bowers is known as a resolute sentencer and a mile from a soft touch. His reputation is for sound common sense and safe, realistic judgment.
The purpose of this part of his sentencing remarks was not to excuse or condone the acts of burglars. It was aimed specifically at Richard Rochford, sending this message to him:- ‘if you have the courage/capacity to commit a heinous crime like this, you should have the courage/capacity to change your ways’.
Whilst society expects most offenders to self-determine their rehabilitation, my thirty three years of experience of criminal justice says otherwise. One of the most testing and difficult changes for a re-offender is the decision to quit. Offending frequently becomes a lifestyle for criminals, trapped by weakness, insignificance, life experience, drug dependence or peer group. Such offenders stand little chance of escape from crime. Their criminal lifestyle is self-perpetuating, whilst society looks on – administering deserved punishment but without offering solutions.
This is why re-offending in a prison-obsessed society is so high. It is also why on the whole, prisons cannot work. Being confined to a cell, exercising and socialising with other criminals is not a good recipe to bring about change. Community sentences attempt to address this, and have some success – certainly better than incarceration with other offenders. Britain has an unusually high prison population, which over many decades, has not reduced offending. For that, one needs to look to other social measures.
I sense that the message Judge Bowers wanted to convey was that as this particular offender was clearly not daunted by the sheer risk of committing the crime, he should have sufficient courage to tackle the hazardous and testing task of his own rehabilitation. In speaking about courage, Judge Bowers sought to harness Rochford’s strengths for ‘good’ rather than ‘evil’ – for rehabilitation rather than re-offending. This is a sensible message to an offender. But perhaps it was too subtle for the media to grasp?
When the press has moved on to new news, and politicians have ceased to posture, perhaps then we can explore the real debate that Judge Bowers’ starting pistol has triggered. What is the true role for prison, why does it not provide sufficient benefits for the public, and how can it be made to work? It is notable that, in the aftermath of Judge Bowers’ remarks, no one seems willing to seize that particular nettle.