…and throw away the key

Friday, July 3, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Crime & Policing

Now I wouldn’t say that I’ve generally got draconian attitudes towards crime and punishment. I would feel that I would tend to punish crimes of fear, violence and intimidation, and crimes against a specific individual more harshly than I would want to punish other sorts of crimes, or those against a company or organisation.

There are some areas where crime and punishment presents difficulties. Does a father who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family deserve to go to prison? No? What if you’re the shopkeeper of the shop he’s stolen from a dozen times. How would you feel then? In either case, I’d reckon clapping him in chains and shipping him off to Australia for the rest of his natural life was perhaps a little harsh, and fortunately we no longer export criminals to Australia.

However, one of ours exported himself to Brazil, and that’s the chap that’s inspired this post. Look at Ronnie Biggs; he’s old, he’s frail; he can’t walk, he’s going to die soon probably (*koff* anyone else remember Ernest Saunders’ recovery from incurable dementia?) Why don’t we let him out of prison early?

In 1964, Ronnie Biggs was sentenced for his part in the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Fifteen months into his sentence, he escaped, and after five years or so, he ended up in Brazil, where he could not be extradited back to the UK. After having suffered a series of strokes, he returned to the UK for free medical treatment in 2001.

Here we move into the realm of speculation. Some people would argue that he returned to the UK simply to benefit from the UK’s healthcare. Some people would suggest that he returned to the UK because his money ran out. Some people would suggest that he returned to the UK because he didn’t think in his frail condition that he would be sent back to prison.

His son thinks he should be allowed to live out the rest of his life in peace, insisting that he is no longer a danger, he’s not actually capable of committing any crimes. I do understand the point that his son is making, and can understand that it must be awful for the son to watch his father suffering and moldering in prison but…

…and this is rather my key point. In 1964, Ronald Biggs was sentenced to thirty years in prison. By my reckoning, he has served about nine years of this. On the other hand, had he not escaped from jail, he would probably — assuming good behaviour — have been released between 1984 and 1990. The fact that he’s got to spend the rest of his life rotting in jail is a direct consequence of not only the initial crime he committed, but the second crime he committed in escaping from jail in the first place and going on the run.

It might seem like a lack of compassion, but I cannot find it anywhere in my heart to suggest that a man who escaped from prison should serve anything less than the initial tariff for which he was sentenced. Why should a man who has tried everything to avoid serving his sentence until his health fails him, be allowed to get away with it because his health has failed him?

Also, what message does this send out to others: do your time, keep your nose clean, and you’ll be out in two-thirds of your initial sentence; or you could go on the run until you’re very old and frail, and then you’ll only have to serve one third of it?

It might not be pleasant — or cheap for the taxpayer — to keep an ill, elderly man in prison, but were it not for his own actions, he would have been released from prison before he became that old, elderly man. But I’m not without compassion: once he’s served twenty-nine of the original thirty, I’m quite happy for him to be released just in time to see in his hundredth birthday as a free man.

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8 Comments to …and throw away the key

  1. Gary Miller says:

    July 3rd, 2009 at 8:22 am

    Hear hear. The driver, Jack Mills, was “hit on the head with an iron bar” and “suffered constant trauma headaches the rest of his life.”. Source: Wikipedia.

    Although Biggs probably didn’t take part in the assault, he was a party to the robbery and so – IMHO – shares the blame.

  2. Mike says:

    July 4th, 2009 at 1:13 am

    I agree too. Seems to me he ONLY came back to the UK because he thought there was something in it for him. No remorse, no regrets.
    I’m sure this sentiment has been espoused by villains down the ages, and long before nicking a loaf of bread got you sent to ‘God’s Own Country’,: I’m you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.
    That is all.

  3. Mike says:

    July 4th, 2009 at 1:14 am

    Erm.. “IF you can’t do the time…”

  4. John H says:

    July 4th, 2009 at 10:07 am

    I agree that Biggs shouldn’t be let out early because of his health. It’s not as if he doesn’t have access to health care in prison.

    On the wider question of punishment, the “throw away the key” principle is problematic. While I’m dead against (!) capital punishment for various reasons, I think it’s a great pity that the state has to fork out huge sums of money to keep in jail for life certain murderers who are no use to anyone, including themselves. I’m not referring here to someone who has killed once in questionable circumstances and has no other criminal record, but to the persistent serious criminals whose sole purpose in life seems to be to make it a misery for others. For these people it’s a pity that exile (say, to the Arctic) is no longer practical…

  5. Seb Crump says:

    July 4th, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    The fact that he’s got to spend the rest of his life rotting in jail is a direct consequence of not only the initial crime he committed, but the second crime he committed in escaping from jail in the first place and going on the run.

    Just a factual correction, from what I heard on the radio (so may be incorrect), is not to do with him escaping. They had the option of taking him to trial for that when he returned but chose not to, so he is still being detained for the original crime.

    FWIW IMHO he should stay inside, as he hasn’t served the time he should have.

  6. JackP says:

    July 4th, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    …ah, right: so he’s despite the fact that it may seem to us non-legal experts as though he absconded, he’s not actually been found guilty of that as such.

    But, as you say, there’s still another 21 years of his original sentence to run. And I can’t imagine escaping exactly counts as ‘good behaviour’.

  7. Gary Miller says:

    August 6th, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    Oh well…see he’s out

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