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Smart Justice

Bryan Gibson
by Bryan Gibson (author of The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice)

(page 1 of 4)

I knew the rot was beginning to set in when I heard the Lord Chancellor, Lord Faulkner, use the term “doing justice differently”. My suspicions that the Government were again up to no good solidified when Tony Blair, Prime Minister and John Reid, Home Secretary, began to use the words “smart justice”. Then in The Queen’s Speech of November 2006 the cat was truly out of the bag. Having conspired to wreck major tranches of the criminal law, sentencing, evidence and procedure, notions of justice are now expected to change.

The edifice is to be tampered with. The whole point about justice is that it does not shift with the times or in the face of so-called “new realities”. It cannot be updated and is incapable
of amendment. Justice exists and can either be given or denied.

A Lesson From History
Fortunately, there is the BBC, itself under threat ever since the Hutton inquiry – if not before, that continues to serve up information so vital to the collective memory, some of which serves as a warning about the excesses of unbridled power and lack of proper democratic accountability. A recent series, “The Nuremberg Trials” (BBC2) got me thinking about a visit to Germany that, amongst other things, took in Gestapo HQ, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Plötzensee Prison and, for good measure, Stasi HQ (of the former East Germany). All places where the atmosphere lies heavy and the sense that dreadful things do happen, and still happen in parts of the world, are never far from mind. The German people (“Die Deutschen Volk” as it says over the portico to the Reichstag) are still, 60 years on, wrestling to come to terms with their past; with the fact they were duped by a gang of criminals. But rather than airbrush matters, the strategy is to mark such events, record everything, make sure that modern approaches are sound and cannot be exploited for political or other gain. The Reichstag has a glass roof through which visitors can observe members of Parliament in session below: a symbol of transparency

Topography of Terror
Gestapo headquarters were housed in the euphemistically named School of Arts and Crafts. It was demolished at the end of the Second World War in a symbolic gesture and the resulting field of rubble is one of the few remaining scars in a vibrant, modern Berlin. The place resembles a bomb-site like those that littered parts of Britain well into the 1950s. Almost demolished, that is, since parts of the cellars where victims of the Nazi regime were held and tortured are still visible, it now sits somewhat incongruously beneath a preserved section of the Berlin Wall. There is a visitors’ centre and the place is now widely known as the Topography of Terror.

On display are numerous photographs and artefacts from the 1920s to 1940s: of the 30 or so variously coloured badges (stars) that had to be worn by various categories of “undesirable” ranging from the Jew to the gypsy to the homosexual to the criminal. Then there are pictures of the real villains, meaning those who were in power, and some of their victims, including Judges who refused to apply or “wrongly interpreted” Nazi law and who were whisked off to Plötzensee, many to be executed following what passed for justice. There are descriptions of sham trials. There is also a section on “Anti-social Behaviour” and “Emergency Powers” that from as early as the 1920s were a central tool in keeping the criminal law flexible. It is impossible to look at such things without thinking that anti-social behaviour is an intrinsically bad term, incapable of rehabilitation, that any currency it ever possessed had already expired in the early part of the 20th century. It is certainly embarrassing to try and explain the rise of the British ASBO to many German people without causing raised eyebrows: Stalin targeted ASB as well, of course, through his pogroms.

Ultimately, the mind-set created by anti-social behaviour and notions of what can only be described as smart justice, enabled the police to arrest anyone who blighted the political landscape; not just offenders proper, but dissenters and other undesirables, even people suffering from mental impairment. Put simply, it became possible to make the law up as you went along; and then this privilege was passed to the police. Recognize anything?

Continued ... page 1 2 3 4

© Bryan Gibson 2007. This article appeared in Justice of the Peace in March 2007

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