For £400, Allan Seymour would stop breaking the law. He’s been breaking it now for 34 years. He’s been punished with fines, punished in the community, punished in prison. Everybody is always telling that him they’re going to rehabilitate him – he’s done all the courses. But here he is: 53 years old and up in court yet again. All for want of £400.
The secret of Allan Seymour’s crime is so plain it is almost invisible. You might see him one night, asleep in a quiet doorway in Westminster or on a bench in Green Park, and you might think he was a boozer or a junkie or maybe another schizophrenic receiving his care in the community. He is none of those things. His problem is simpler. He is poor.
He is a qualified chef but he cannot get full-time work, because he has no fixed abode. He has no fixed abode because he cannot earn enough from part-time work to save up the deposit for a flat, which would be about £400. On good days, he finds a bit of casual work in a kitchen somewhere and he earns £30 – that’s £20 for bed and breakfast for the night, and £10 for his food, and nothing left for saving. On a bad day, he earns nothing, and so he sleeps rough and does not eat. If he has too many bad days on the trot, he has to go and steal something. And once in a while, he gets caught.
He is back in trouble now. He had a good run of work, cooking for an exhibition at Earls Court, but then the exhibition moved to Birmingham and he was forced to sleep rough again. He heard there might be work in Canary Wharf, so he headed all the way over there, but there was nothing for him, and he was hungry and cold, so he went into an HMV record store and pinched two £60 box sets of DVDs. He reckoned he’d get £15 for each of them at one of the street markets – £30 that would get him through the next 24 hours. But he was seen and now here he is again, up in the dock, at Thames Magistrates Court in the East End of London.
Allan Seymour is part of the simple truth about the courts. Almost without exception, the men and women in the dock here are poor. You could see the whole process of criminal justice as one section of the working class arresting another so that the middle class can argue about what to do with them. One after another, women with tired eyes and young men in track suits stand in the dock and declare an income of £84 a fortnight, basic benefit, nothing else – £6 a day.
But the poverty is only the beginning. Listen to the lawyers telling the judges about their clients: “Schizophrenic episodes… psychiatric problem as a result of being tortured in Kosovo… … on medication for depression….” Here’s a young man, charged with driving without insurance or licence. He lives on £84 a fortnight and he gives £60 of it to a hostel. He is in the hostel because – as his medical report shows – he is suffering from ‘a major psychiatric illness’. He was hospitalised from October 2002 until April 2003. Now he is in danger of going to prison, and his lawyer wants him to tell the court a little more about his illness, but he can’t. He can’t remember what drugs he is on; he can’t even put a name to his own illness.
A courtroom is like a way station for the walking wounded retreating from the battle of life: the mentally ill, the physically disabled, the man who can’t leave the cells because he has just had some kind of fit, the endless bottomless stream of junkies, the alcoholics, the confused, the depressed, the inadequate. Most of these defendants have not got two GCSEs to rub together, and a significant number of them admit that they cannot read or write. Watch this swaggering white lad with the smirk who stands in the dock with his shoulders back and is asked to spell his address and shrugs and says “No idea” and suddenly drops his smirk for good.
These defendants don’t look worried or scared, just tired and fed up. They are not master criminals. They commit crime with the same muddled inadequacy as they handle the rest of their lives and yet, like a blind giant stumbling in the dark, the system lashes out at the little people down around its ankles: law-abiding people see the threat from law enforcement and they run away; these offenders stay and watch the giant catching air and sometimes smashing somebody’s life. Once, the criminal justice system took it for granted that offenders should be helped so that the community would be protected: the probation service was created to advise, assist and befriend offenders. Now, the probation service is a very different organisation, and real assistance is very hard to find.
A week in court is a week watching a billion-pound machine hurt people who need help. The judges, just as much as the defendants, are trapped in the machine. Each day, they are confronted by their failure: the same old faces back in the dock, the same old stories from the new faces. With rare exceptions, the district judges here show every sign of common sense and humanity, unlike their stipendiary predecessors who were commonly pompous and cruel, and often they attempt to smuggle some sense into the system.
So Allan Seymour stands in the dock and admits he stole the DVDs. He always pleads guilty. Most defendants do. The judge could take the easy route and fine him, but Mr Seymour does not even have £84 a fortnight in benefit from which to pay. The last time he tried to sign on, a couple of years ago, he proffered his national insurance card and was told he had to have three different forms of ID, so he drifted off and could not think how, living on a park bench, he could get any more ID and he could not understand why they needed it, because he was on the computer, and since he had always found bureaucracy a bit much to handle, he gave up.
The judge could take another easy option – a fine with an alternative of one night in custody. And Mr Seymour has already served that, because of another piece of bureaucracy which he could not handle: when he was arrested at the HMV store, he was taken to Bethnal Green police station and was then denied bail because he had no permanent address to give them, so he was held overnight. The judge – grey suit, tall, thin – tries to do better. He wants probation to produce a pre-sentence report, and in the meantime, he wants Mr Seymour to be given a bed in a bail hostel. The probation officer in court protests that there are very few places and this defendant does not have priority (More than 40% of hostel places are now taken by sex offenders.) It looks as though Mr Seymour is about to fall at another bureaucratic fence, but the judge pushes, and the probation officer makes a phone call, and miraculously a place is found for him in a bail hostel on Romford Road.
That judge just helped that man. But that is unusual. As Allan Seymour heads off for a home which will last as long as his case is not dealt with, the court turns its attention to ‘breach hearings’. In a single day, there are 29 cases of defendants who are being brought back to court for failing to turn up for community punishments, and now they take their turn in the dock to explain in detail just how and why the court’s punishments have bounced straight off their backs, like wooden arrows hitting an armoured tank.
A 20-year-old Bengali from Stepney says he did go for his community punishment, but none of the other five people who were supposed to be there turned up, so it was cancelled. By the time it was started again, he had been beaten up by a rival gang, spent three days in hospital and had a metal plate put in his face and then he was scared to go out because the police hadn’t arrested the people who attacked him and they were still hanging around the estate. His father comes to say that’s true. Plus, in hospital, they gave him morphine which got him going with heroin again, so he just kind of lost it. His behaviour is wrapped up in his problems with drug addiction, physical safety, maybe housing. The court’s decision: no help; but a fine of £50 (to be paid over five weeks from his £84 a fortnight benefit.)
A young white lad from Hackney was busted for possession of cannabis, failed to turn up for court twice and then got caught shoplifting. He ended up with two different community punishments but failed to turn up for either of them. His problems are clear: he has no home, no work and he cannot read or write. The court’s decision: no help; but a fine of £50 (to be paid out of his £84 a fortnight.)
There’s a young man who got caught stealing from the supermarket where he was stacking shelves: he lost his job; he was not allowed to sign on for six months; so he is living off his mother and did not have the bus fare to get across London to keep his probation appointment. The court’s decision: fine him £50, to be paid out of his benefit once it starts again. It is not clear whether the court believes its decision will make it more or less likely that he will steal again.
How can the court control the lives of people who are not in control of their lives? Of the 29 men and woman who have been summoned to court today to explain why they have not turned up for their community punishment, twelve now fail to turn up for today’s hearing.
The police and the prosecutors and the defence lawyers who mingle in the big hall outside the courtrooms agree that most property crime is committed by drug addicts; most violent crime is committed by people who have been drinking; most people who come through these courts are desperate in one way or another. “Is there any evidence that anything that these courts are doing is having any impact on the amount of crime which is committed out on the streets?” They laugh at that idea.
When Allan Seymour comes back to court two weeks later, his luck is good again: probation say they have been too busy to produce his pre-sentence report so he can stay on bail in the hostel for another fortnight. Around him, others are not so lucky. Confronted by the failure of punishment, some magistrates ratchet up the sanctions, like the director of a Victorian asylum, who observes that his staff are failing to beat the madness out of the patients and so requires that they be beaten all the harder.
A 19-year-old black lad admits using a stolen credit card to try and buy two pairs of trainers from a shop in Bethnal Green Road. The prosecution agree that somebody else stole the card and gave it to him, and the court is told that he was treated with undue violence by shop staff. He is an unusually promising defendant: he lives with his mother, he has no criminal record, he has six GCSEs with A to C grades, he is on the verge of being hired as a mechanic and, his lawyer, says: “A conviction at this stage of his life would seriously impede his chances of employment.” She asks the court to give him a conditional discharge so that he can keep his clean sheet. The bench, however, rule that “these matters are quite serious”, ignore the plea and fine him £150 with £70 costs, agreeing to let him pay £10 a week, and adding, without apparent irony: “Hopefully you will find employment soon and you will be able to pay it quicker.”
You can see the futility fueling the punishment. A young black guy has been caught driving whilst disqualified. It is not a serious or violent offence, and yet he is being held in prison to await his trial… because this is the fourth time he has been caught committing the same offence in the last 18 months; each time, he has been punished; each time, he has gone straight back out and done it again. Then there is a young Bengali who helped his friend to steal a £10 rucksack from the back of a car. It is a minor offence, but he gets four months in jail for it, because he has already breached three community orders, failed to comply with a drugs treatment and testing order, breached his bail conditions and ignored a conditional discharge. He tested positive for heroin and cocaine.
Allan Seymour says he knows where he went wrong. He was all right until he was 16 – a stable working-class family in Lanarkshire, left school at 15 and followed his father into the steel works at Ravenscraig. Then his father died, aged 42, of a kidney problem. He loved his father. He used to go fishing with him on the banks of the Clyde. So, when he died, he went off the rails a bit. He threw in his job and, although his mother persuaded him to go to college to learn cooking, he ended up drifting away to London, working as much as he needed and never quite settling down. He was married once, he has a son, but, after a few years, that went wrong and he drifted away again.
Now finally probation has prepared its report on him, and he is back at Thames magistrates to discover his fate. Anything could happen. Over the years, he has been given fines, probation orders, community punishments and prison sentences. All he wants is somewhere to live. And today there is more good news: the probation report says his case should be adjourned for another four weeks so that he can be assessed for a community rehabilitation order with a condition that he continue to live at the bail hostel for a year. That would make sense. That would give him a permanent address, so he could find permanent work and break out of his cycle of poverty and crime.
But, of course, it does not happen. Just as he is going into court, a probation officer hands his lawyer a letter from the bail hostel: they don’t want him after all. He is a low-risk case, he is not a good use of resources and, if he is not on bail, they do not have to take him. The lawyer says surely probation are supposed to be cutting down on reoffending. But there is no argument: the hostels are now privatised, they have their targets. The door is shut.
Inside the court, the district judge reads the report from probation which calls for a community order and explains that if Mr Seymour has no address, he cannot have any such order. So what should the judge do? Fine him, when he has no money? Jail him, when there is no point? The judge sends the probation officer to check that there is really no address that they can offer this man. Four hours later, probation come back with the same answer.
The lawyer tells the court quite openly that if Mr Seymour has nowhere to live, he is going to commit more offences. She quotes the motto at the top of the probation letter: “enforcement, rehabilitation and public protection”. Where is the rehabilitation, she asks. The judge acknowledges that there is no point in fining or jailing him and even offers to adjourn the case for another two weeks if only to give Mr Seymour another fortnight of life at the bail hostel. Once again, they break for an hour, so that the probation officer can see whether the hostel will let that happen. An hour later, she comes back to report that the bed in the hostel is no longer available.The judge sighs and agrees to give Mr Seymour a conditional discharge.That is the equivalent of the court flying a white flag: they don’t know what to do, and so they will not do anything.
In a speech quoted in the foreword to last year’s national probation report, the Prime Minister said: “There is no issue that touches our citizens more deeply than crime and law and order on our streets, and we need to make changes so that we have a criminal justice system that punishes the criminals but also offers those convicted the chance to rehabilitate and make their way out of a life of crime.”
A few weeks ago, a woman in her 30s who had been up in court more times than she could count, was up once more for shoplifting. She was a heroin addict, she had a good lawyer and ended up in front of a court which wanted to help her. So, instead of going to prison, she was given another community rehabilitation order for shoplifting and sent out into the streets with nothing. Once upon a time, probation would have given her a little cash or even looked after her. A few decades ago, the government would have allowed her doctor to prescribe her some clean heroin to keep away from the blackmarket and the streets. As it was, the system gave her nothing. Her solicitor gave her a £5 note out of her own pocket, and the woman was grateful. A week later she was dead – she had taken some dirty drugs, collapsed and died in hospital.
Allan Seymour was last seen heading back to the streets, still £400 short of a life.