Saturday, 13 December 2008

Canoes and self-pity

A couple of weeks ago I emitted a piece of waffle about the Crown Prosecution service. In a lengthy and interesting comment Mrs Raft raised a number of points including one I want to look at today.

Last year a man reappeared having been missing for five years. It was thought he had drowned following his canoe capsizing, in fact he was alive and well all along and the canoeing incident was part of a fraud perpetrated by him and his wife on an insurance company. In July this year they were both convicted of obtaining money by deception and given lengthy prison sentences. As the BBC reported at the time, the judge described their sons (who had been misled by their mother into thinking their father was dead) as the "real victims". Mrs Raft, took issue with this, pointing out that the insurance company was the real victim and commented that the judge had stepped outside his judicial function by making the remark.

If it were not for the context in which the judge used those words, I would agree with Mrs Raft entirely. In fact he said it while giving the reasons for imposing the stiff prison sentences he did. That the couple's children had been misled in such a cruel way was an aggravating feature justifying the imposition of a longer prison sentence than would have been appropriate had the sons been told the truth. There are many factors judges have to consider when passing sentence and for him to describe the couple's boys as the real victims helped to put in context that they had been told their father was dead and found out years later it was all a hoax, and all for the sake of £50,000. It's hard, I think, to criticise the phrase in that context. He was not saying they were victims of crime in the conventional sense but that they were victims of their parents' behaviour.

Although I think the judge was justified in using the words he did in that case, there is a wider point raised by Mrs Raft, that of "victim impact statements". I can't actually remember whether that is the correct term for them, but I find them so offensive that I can't be bothered to look it up. The concept behind them is that victims of crime can tell the court how they have suffered. It is not something that can affect sentence in most cases because the judge would be told of the consequences of the defendant's conduct and would take that into account anyway, as the judge did in the great canoe caper case. Sentence does not and should not increase with the number of tears shed by the victim. The one real impact such a statement can have is to reduce sentence if the victim informs the judge of mitigating circumstances which were previously unknown. This does not happen very often, but talking to friends who are judges in criminal courts I am aware that it does occur from time to time.

The real purpose of victim impact statements is to add to the general weight of hippyisation in the country. "You must tell the judge how you have suffered, it will help to bring closure, then we will make more counselling available for you" is the typical approach of those who promoted this ridiculous exercise in public pity-seeking.

I wonder whether it really does help the victims to get over what happened to them. All of us who have been victims of crime react to the experience in different ways. I encountered a burglar in the living room of FatBigot Towers a few years ago. On being asked what he was doing here he said "sorry mate, I've got the wrong house, I thought this was my house". This would have been a perfectly plausible explanation had he been blind drunk and staggered in through an open front door, but my house has steps up to the front door, the living room window is at the same level and a good twelve feet above the concrete path outside the basement window on the floor below, to get to the window ledge requires walking up the steps and stepping over a three-foot gap; he climbed in through the living room window. He knew the game was up when I appeared and exited peacefully through the front door as I ushered him out. I, on the other hand, was shaking for hours and did not feel safe in my own home for many months.

Had he been apprehended and convicted my statement to the court would have described how scared I was that he might have a knife and pierce my flabby frame, thereby causing severe stains to the carpet and, no doubt, a degree of discomfort to me. But what would it have achieved? Shit happens in life. To everyone. You have to put it behind you and get on. The idea that telling a judge about it would somehow alleviate any lingering worry is simply absurd. Any trial would not occur until months after the event by which time the last thing that will help a victim of crime is to have to relive the whole horrid experience again. Of course you would have to relive it if you gave evidence, sitting down to try to work out exactly how unpleasant it was and then having that recounted in court does not seem like something to reduce that trauma.

The most worrying aspect of victim impact statements is that they add to the torrent of well-meaning wishy-washy advice given by the caring-and-sharing raffia munchers ("the Righteous" as the great Mr Leg-Iron describes them). It builds the idea of victimhood being a permanent state, something that is with you forever and which you must milk for everything you can get. They talk of "closure" yet their practises require the nasty event to be reopened. They call for justice yet encourage a plea of aggravation to be made when all relevant aggravating facts will already be before the court. The supreme irony is that the very people who encourage the permanency of victimhood are the first in line to describe offenders as victims of society and bleat about the savagery of imprisonment and the inappropriateness of punishment as a response to crime.

Victims are victims, every crime has at least one and every victim has a life to live. There is far less chance of them putting bad experiences behind them if the prevailing attitude is that they must consider victimhood a status rather than the result of an isolated incident. I suppose I'm just advocating the stiff upper lip. Yes, that's exactly what I'm doing, because I think it is a much more positive approach than wallowing in self-pity.


Pogo said...

Nothing wrong eith the old "stiff upper lip"!!

ISTR reading a report a while back that concluded that people who received counselling over a traumatic event actually took a lot longer to get over it than those who just metaphorically shrugged and got on with their lives.

Another factor in the "victim culture" that I find rather sinister is the concept of prosecuting the result of a crime rather than the crime itself (I don't think I'm expressing myself very well though). For example "causing death by careless driving", ie basically making a mistake, whereas previously it was "... dangerous driving", ie culpable negligence, that would lead to a heavyweight prosecution. In the former case, a slight mistake, we're all human after all (except Gordon Brown who is a space lizard from the planet Zog), might lead to a £60 fine and three points or a lengthy gaol sentence depending upon the luck of the draw. Not the way to do things in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I'd disagree with you that 'every crime has a victim'. Posession of a class A drug is a crime, but there is no victim. The same can be said of posession of an offensive weapon or even an 'attempt' to commit a crime.