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News Roundup Week Ending 9 May

Charlotte Rowles

By Charlotte Rowles on 08/05/14

News Roundup Week Ending 9 May

May 8

Ben Piven writes about Al Jazeera  America’s TV series ‘The System’ broadcasting in May.

DNA exoneration: Redeeming the wrongfully convicted

Across U.S., 316 jailed criminals have successfully proved their innocence and found justice through forensic science
In the real world the introduction of modern genetic testing into the criminal justice system has added a new twist to these old themes, providing for some a way out from behind bars — through an exoneration process that leads from the laboratory to the courtroom.

DNA evidence has saved the lives of those on death row and freed others from long prison terms. Since the first convicted inmate was exonerated using DNA evidence in 1989, there have been 316 DNA exonerations nationwide, with the vast majority since 2000 ending in freedom for the convicted. Today, all 50 states have laws that, to varying degrees, permit convicts to access DNA tests — even decades after what may have been a wrongful conviction.

Lawrence Kobilinsky, chair of the sciences department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that the public, as well as judges and juries, considers DNA testing to be “the gold standard” for proof that, if produced, can trump other types of evidence.

In addition to its potential to free the innocent, DNA testing can help identify a crime’s true culprit. Nearly half of DNA exoneration cases lead to someone other than the falsely convicted individual.

As a group, these exonerated individuals have served more than 4,000 total years in prison, according to the Innocence Project. The average among them was locked up for 13 years and was found guilty at the age of 27.
DNA exoneration cases involve irrefutable evidence that the suspect was wrongfully convicted, and can spring from a number of causes, including bad lawyering and government misconduct, as well as the following relatively common reasons:

Flawed forensics
Eyewitness misidentification
False confessions.
Unreliable informants
There are about six exoneration cases that didn’t involve the use of DNA testing to shed light on a wrongful conviction. Thus, only a small fraction of cases in which the convict was set free involved nonbiological means.

8 May 2014
Rob Allen, criminal justice consultant writes about the state of prisons in the Guardian.

MPs complain of poor prison standards – but praise cuts

Slashing prison budgets has led to an inevitable slump in conditions, but MPs are looking for further economies. As the prison service prepares to slash costs by a further £149m a year, two sharply contrasting views have emerged about the state of the 146 prisons in England and Wales.

Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, condemned Brinsford Young Offender Institution as the worst prison he has visited since taking up his role in 2010 – adding to a growing list of jails unable to provide basic levels of decency and safety.

At the same time, the Commons' public accounts committee has put forward the government's cost-cutting and management of prisons over the past four years as an example of best practice that should be disseminated across Whitehall.
But neither seems to be making the point that it is the cutbacks that are leading to poor quality and safety in prisons. Of course, not all prisons contain the squalid cells and enforced idleness found at Brinsford. But other prisons have come in for heavy criticism in recent reports, including the dilapidated state of the buildings at Pentonville and Winchester, the high levels of violence at Feltham and the restricted regimes provided at the newly opened private prisons, Oakwood and Thameside.

The report, Managing the prison estate, by Margaret Hodge, the committee's chair, and her colleagues, does examine the limitations of these two private prisons. But the report is generally positive and welcomes the fact that the prison service has achieved significant savings in running costs, which is certainly true. It also makes a more questionable claim – that improvements are being made in the way offenders' needs are met: many more are allowed to work and stay closer to their homes.

If the MPs on the committee had looked at the report on Brinsford, they would have seen the negative consequences of staff reductions: too many evening and weekend recreational sessions cancelled because officers were redeployed to other areas; inadequate supervision in the health care unit; and, significantly in the light of Chris Grayling's assurances that prisoners do not need books to be sent in to them, inadequate access to the library because of lack of staff.
The select committee makes the point that additional cost savings could be made if the prison service provided more offender behaviour programmes to help prisoners serving indeterminate sentences to be released at the earliest opportunity. Such savings would be even more substantial if prisoners were better equipped for a life back in the community, making them less likely to reoffend.

But rehabilitation programmes have an upfront cost which the committee is unwilling to acknowledge. Instead, by prioritising economy and efficiency over effectiveness, the MPs are encouraging a further round of cuts rather than sounding a warning siren.
The committee should take a much closer look at whether lower prison budgets are genuinely delivering what is required, while prisons inspectors should look much more systematically at the impact of staffing and resource levels on what is happening in the prisons they visit.
Putting those two bits of the picture together would help answer the question of whether prisons are fit for any more cutbacks.

 6 May 2014

Barrister Barbara Hewson reports on Operation Yewtree for Spiked.

A judge has sentenced celebrity publicist Max Clifford to eight years in prison for eight proven charges of indecent assault against four women, contrary to the Sexual Offences Act 1956. The jury rejected the evidence of two other complainants, and could not agree on that of a third.

The maximum sentence available by law for such historic offences is two years, so Clifford has obviously been sentenced to consecutive rather than concurrent sentences. It is more usual to impose concurrent sentences, so it appears that the court was seeking to give the public a message about being tough on this sort of crime.

Clifford’s stance throughout the trial clearly did him no favours. He was antagonistic, boastful and obnoxious, calling his accusers liars and fantasists. This high-risk tactic predictably backfired. Clifford has made a lot of enemies during his career as a ‘kiss and tell’ story broker, and the jury obviously found him deeply unattractive. The rejoicing at his downfall was universal.

Britain is peculiarly addicted to sex scandals, and has been for centuries. But for this national trait, Clifford’s lucrative PR career would not have been possible. However, the fact that he was found rightly guilty of some crimes doesn’t disguise the fact that the system that was used against him is unbalanced in the way it deals with allegations of historic sex crime. Should we also rejoice because the present system is loaded against defendants in such cases? I think not.

Unusually, Britain does not have any statute of limitations for dealing with crime. This has led to a situation where a great many non-famous old men are doing time for sex offences committed as long ago as the 1940s. Human-rights law dictates that you cannot prosecute people under laws that were not in force at the time of the offence of which they are accused. Article 7.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (‘No punishment without law’) states:
‘No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence under national or international law at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the criminal offence was committed.’

The problem with historic accusations, which the people who wrote the European Convention could never have envisaged, is the wholly artificial exercise inherent in judging such crimes by modern standards instead of the values society held at the time they were committed. Serious crimes such as rape, murder, armed robbery and organised prostitution have always been treated as very grave, for obvious reasons.