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It’s a sad fact of life in and after lockdown that everything is a bit rubbish. We have called groups of friends a few times to chat via Zoom. It’s nice to see everyone but the conversation doesn’t flow. You can’t pick up the cues to detect who wants to speak next and if everyone talks at once you can’t hear anything. Zoom quizzes are fun, but, for the same reasons, they lack the banter of a real pub quiz and are therefore focussed and functional. A couple of times we have sat down as a family to watch streamed theatre performances. They were very good but it’s not the same as a night at the theatre and, without the atmosphere of a live performance, you might as well watch a TV drama which has been written for the medium through which it is presented. Things which were once simple are now complicated – you need an appointment to go to the tip for heaven’s sake! And while Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer is quite amusing, it is no substitute for the live international football that the Euros were promising.
On 23rd March 2020, the Parole Board made the decision to postpone all face to face hearings with immediate effect. The decision was inevitable – prisons had closed their gates to visitors and it was no longer possible for members and witnesses to travel the country for hearings. A couple of weeks of frenzied activity followed as cases were reviewed. Some were deferred, some were decided on the papers, others were converted to telephone or video hearings. Since then, I have participated in 20 remote Parole hearings, all conducted by Skype / telephone. So, has the Parole process, like so many other things, become a bit rubbish?
The simple answer to that is, surprisingly, no. Remote technology has been available to the Parole Board since I was appointed ten years ago. A new “Parole Hub” had just been established and its virtues were extolled at my initial training. The idea was that the panel would convene in a suite in London while the prisoner and witnesses would join via video link. It was to be the future. In reality, hub hearings never took off in the way that was hoped. While the Parole Hub has been running continuously, only a few prisons have the necessary technology. Most cases were considered too complex to risk making a decision without seeing the prisoner. Any suggestions of learning difficulties, mental health problems, serious or unusual offending meant that cases were deemed unsuitable to be heard remotely. Despite expressing a willingness to conduct hub hearings, I have only done two in ten years.
All that changed on 23rd March. If we had deferred every “complex” case, we would have a massive backlog by now. Instead, after the initial confusion of the first couple of weeks, the Parole system has adjusted. We are now hearing just as many cases as we would have expected in normal times and the backlog is reducing rather than increasing. Telephone hearings are by no means perfect. Sometimes the line crackles and you have to ask people to repeat themselves. Sometimes participants disappear altogether. In one of my hearings, the chair vanished for 10 minutes but after a few frantic e-mails he was able to re-join. Sometimes witnesses don’t pick up the non-verbal cues that they have answered the question and ramble on for longer than they may otherwise. As a result, remote hearings tend to take slightly longer than face to face hearings.
But there are advantages too. In my experience, telephone hearings start on time – everyone logs on when they are supposed to, no one gets stuck in traffic. From a personal point of view, I can wear what I like, I can get up and stretch, I can drink coffee and eat snacks during the hearing, all without looking unprofessional. Hearings may take a little longer but I don’t have a long drive home afterwards, so they are less tiring. If one of my hearings is cancelled, it is relatively easy to find another one to take its place because I’m no longer restricted by geography – I can pick up a vacancy anywhere in the country. And remote hearings cost the tax payer a lot less in travel expenses and hotel costs. As long as solicitors are able to consult with their clients by telephone prior to hearings, they are able to represent their interests effectively. Several of my remote hearings have involved vulnerable prisoners, with learning difficulties, mental health problems, physical health problems and dementia. Prior to 23rd March, none of these would have been considered for remote hearings but in most cases, despite these challenges, the prisoners were able to participate just as effectively as they would have been in face to face hearings.
The crucial issue, however, is whether the quality of our decisions is affected by our new way of working. That remains to be seen. We will have to wait for the statistics to see whether we are more risk averse and reluctant to release from remote hearings. Time will tell whether serious further offences by prisoners on Parole increase. In theory, the fact that we don’t know what the prisoners we are dealing with look like, may help to reduce unconscious bias and make our decisions fairer. It is very difficult to tell whether someone is lying to you, whether you can see them or not. Not being able to see the “whites of their eyes” is unlikely to make much difference to whether or not we are fooled by prisoners who present themselves well but have made little genuine change to the risk they present.
So remote Parole hearings are probably here to stay. While face to face hearings will return for the most complex and vulnerable prisoners, the majority will continue on the telephone or video link. COVID-19 has forced technological change on the Board in a way that the Parole Hub did not. This may be a good thing or it may not – we will have to wait and see.
One thing we criminologists know is that it is impossible to prevent crime. Many a great criminologist has tried to theorise why crime occurs (my shelves are full of their books) and whilst almost all have made valuable contributions to our understanding of crime, it is an unfortunate fact that crime continues. But then crime itself is difficult to define and has its basis in time, power, opportunity and social discourses. What is criminal today will not be criminal tomorrow and what is important today will lose its importance tomorrow, in favour of some new or maybe, old, manifestation of that elusive concept we call crime. Perhaps we should we grateful, for in the industry of crime lies mass employment. From criminologists to those that attempt to stem the tide of crime, those that deal with its aftermath and those that report on it or write about it (real or fictional), there is money to be made. If we stopped crime, we would all be out of a job.
Most, if not all of us have at some stage in our lives committed some sort of crime. Most crimes will fortunately be almost inconsequential, maybe a flouting of a law such as driving a car over the speed limit. Other crimes will be more serious and whilst some criminals will be brought to book most are not. The inconsequential crime of driving over the speed limit, albeit perhaps due to a lapse of concentration, can have dire consequences. There is clear evidence that the survival rates of pedestrians struck by cars has a direct correlation with speed. So the inconsequential becomes the consequential, the ephemerality of crime, the reality.
When we think of crime, we often have little concept of its reality. We apply labels and our own rules to that we know and find acceptable. Speeding is not criminal, well not generally, unless it’s a boy racer. Drink driving is a no-no, but we might take it to the alcohol limit when having a drink. Drugs (the criminalised type) are ok, well some are and some aren’t, it all depends on your viewpoint. Drugs (the prescription type) are ok, even if they impair our ability to drive. Alcohol, well that’s absolutely ok, even if the abuse of it leads to more deaths than drugs and the consequences of that misuse has a really significant impact on the NHS. Tax evasion, illegal if you get caught, ok if you don’t. A bit like fraud really, ok if you can get away with it but then maybe not, if the victim is a little old lady or me. Assault, well it depends on the seriousness and the situation and probably the victim. Robbery, not good to go into an off licence with a gun and threaten the shopkeeper, bullying if you take lunch money off the lad outside the school gates.
Criminals don’t walk around with a label that says ‘criminal’ and even if they did, there would have to be a method of bestowing the label in an instance. Nonsense of course, only a fool would suggest such a thing. What about the people that committed a crime but have changed their ways I hear my colleagues ask? What about those that haven’t, or have and then relapse, I reply.
Nothing is black and white; the concept of crime is elusive, as are criminals (both by concept and nature). And yet we happily castigate those that attempt to uphold the law on our behalf and in doing so view crime and criminals as clear concepts. Each has a clear label, each is clearly identifiable, so how can they get it so wrong so many times. Whilst criticising those that attempt, and let’s be quite honest, fail most of the time to stem this tide of crime, perhaps we might also think about the impossibility of the job in hand. That’s not to say that a lot of the criticisms are not justified, nor that things should not change, but if we only examine all that is wrong, we lose sight of reality and only an intransigent fool would continue an argument that sees the problems and solutions as simply black and white.
From a young age the Golden Rule is instilled in us, treat others the way you want to be treated. We follow the rule staying home to protect the NHS in these difficult times, we are all humans we want to be safe; we want to protect our loved ones and cover them with a blanket of safety. We supported captain Tom on his quest to raise money for the NHS, we have complimented his humanitarianism.
It has been a hard time for us all. But in a time of uncertainty we have come together as a community to support each other. We have all had a sense of worry, if we leave the house to buy the necessities, the fear of the invisible killer plagues us. We have all helped play the part in flattening the curve. We have felt sadness for the families that have become victims to this killer. But we have not lost hope, we are still hoping for a vaccination to be ready to protect us. Its great that we have the NHS to help us if we are attacked by this enemy. The police were given extra powers to prevent us from breaking the rules and whatever the opinion is of the police we have to acknowledge that these powers that they have been given symbolises law and order and the order being the contribution to stopping the spread of this horrific virus which in essence will help to protect us.
I am contemplating on this because although there have been bumps in the road throughout this lockdown, we all have the same goal……… to live. If we didn’t want to live we would leave our houses unmasked, ignoring all government advice. If we didn’t want to protect our loved ones and our community we wouldn’t support the NHS.
I am going into deep thought……….
Imagine a world where you are not protected, imagine being at war every time you leave your house, imagine a world where you are not safe in your house……..
Picture this an intruder walks into your house, is outraged by the colour of your skin BANG she shoots you in cold blood. The offender uses the excuse she thought she was being robbed, she thought you were the intruder. However, she was the one who let herself into your house. The media and the police sympathise with this woman, as she is a police officer. In their eyes she does not look dangerous, the victim of this crime is seen as a danger to society based only on the colour of his skin. She is not arrested straight away because she has a thing that is more powerful than anything in America, she has White privilege. Imagine a loved one is killed in this way and during the sentencing of the murderer, the judge hugs the offender as if she has done nothing wrong and disregards the feelings of your loved ones. How would you feel?
This did not happen during the civil rights movement, this happened in 2019.
Imagine going for a for some much needed exercise, you are jogging, listening to your music, taking in the fresh air. You are thinking about getting your physique ready for the summer. Two men hunt you down like cattle where they shoot you in broad daylight and they are not arrested straight away. instead your innocence is debated because you are a BLACK man that has left your neighbourhood and entered theirs…..
Imagine it is not a secret that your race can and is used as a weapon against you.
I have seen people gossip about the activities of others during lockdown. I have witnessed the police being called on youths that are skateboarding in a skate park. I have seen the outrage of the people who have been reported by the police for leaving their houses and seemingly not following the rules. Imagine going to the park, having a picnic, going for a walk and being told by a stranger they are going to call the police on you and they can use your race as a weapon, they know by telling the police the colour of your skin it will have an automatic punishment. After all, All Black people are criminals right?
Imagine the police are called on your father as he is suspected of committing a non-violent crime. He is handcuffed and pinned to the floor by a police officer. The officer is leaning on your father’s neck. He can’t breathe, he is begging for mercy, he is calling out for your grandmother, his mother…… he’s an EX con, a criminal, he took drugs, he robbed somebody, he went to prison. But I ask this should he have been executed?
Imagine the people who can see this crime being committed, imagine your 17 year old sister, daughter, friend recorded the execution of George Floyd and she could only record the crime because she fears that the other officers will turn their guns on her if she speaks out.…..After all we must protect the police from these ANGRY BLACK WOMEN they are a big problem with society……
Imagine being BLACK in America.
In recent months I have struggled to go on Facebook. The reason why is because, while many people enjoy the platform discussing current issues and sharing pictures, more and more I have seen subtle tokens of racism becoming more and more prevalent. I refuse to argue with morons who seemed to have lost all sense of humanity. It is gut wrenching when you have Facebook friends who think it’s acceptable to be outright racist. I understand we do not all hold the same values, I understand we do not all advocate for the the hurt and pain of others. But I do not stand with people who do not want to try and understand that their actions destroy communities. No, I’m not talking about the ones who use the sentiment #All Lives Matter, I agree all lives do matter. But there is a deeper message to the Black Lives Matter movement. And so many people of different colours have been understanding of this notion and want to get an understanding of the disproportionate treatment of the Black community and for that I appreciate your support.
I’m talking about the ones that use George Floyd’s reputation to try and denounce the feelings of the Black community. I’m talking about the ones who act surprised that police brutality against the BLACK community is not a new phenomena. I’m talking about the ones who have a problem with #Blackout Tuesday, #Black Lives Matter and the ones who have jumped on the band wagon to make their businesses and institutions look like they are progressive when they have done nothing but use oppressive practices keep BLACK people in their place. I SEE YOU!
It is very hard to understand how people have been so sheltered by this phenomena, even though social media has been covered with news footage of the Breonna Taylor’, Oscar Grant’, Ahmaud Arbery’, Jordan Davis’ the Tamir Rice’ murder I could go on……..
So, I’m going to round this post off by saying a few small words. For the ones who I have a problem with. I am not your bredrin, don’t use me as the Black friend when you run your mouth and show your true racism and need a token Black friend to save you from your mess. It’s cool when you want to dance to our music, eat our food, wear our fashion, appropriate our hairstyles and when you have a fifth cousin twice removed that has mixed race kids or you decide you want to experiment by dating someone that is Black I SEE YOU! don’t try and hide behind the smoke and mirrors and don’t use your relationships as a platform to validate your racism. You have no right to talk negatively about our oppression, you have no right to invalidate our pain. Don’t pretend you see us as your equal, don’t pretend we are accepted into your circle. Stay silent while we are being brutalised, stay silent while we are disproportionately dying of Covid! continue to stay in your bubble I hope you never need to call on the Black community to speak up for YOU! A lot of people have said 2020 is a year they will cancel, as it’s been a year of devastation, but I say 2020 has given me the 2020 vision to see people for exactly who they are.