The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

March 19th, 2006

A murderous system claims more lives

Last week Daniel Gonzalez was found guilty of the murder of four strangers. He is by any standards a disturbed young man with a long history of bizarre and violent behaviour. He was aggressive, obsessed with knives, once diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, once sectioned under the mental health act for assault, once jailed for assault and a chronic drug user. Hours before the murders he ran naked through the streets and threw knives across his mother’s kitchen floor.

His family made incessant requests for help that they say were ignored. “Does my son have to commit murder to get help?” his mother wrote in one letter to social services. Only a month before the murders, Gonzalez himself wrote to a doctor, begging to be locked up, because he felt paranoid and close to a breakdown. “Please, please help me, this is very urgent,” he wrote. “I really, really do need medical help.”

Nonetheless, this dangerous young man remained at large and in September 2004 he went on a three-day rampage and stabbed two men and two women to death. Allegedly he was obsessed with slasher movies, wanted to become famous as a serial killer, and was even trying to imitate the film A Nightmare on Elm Street. At his trial last week the jury rejected his claim that he was not guilty of murder on the grounds of diminished responsibility — he claimed that demonic voices in his head were driving him to kill — and found him guilty.

It seems to me irrelevant to concentrate, as the trial did, on whether this young man was mad or bad. In cases like this, that is not a useful distinction. Psychiatric labels and distinctions are notoriously subject to fashion and change. Mad or bad, he was terribly dangerous. He had, judging from the evidence, all the obvious signs of it from his childhood and his family was extremely concerned. He was at one time officially considered mentally ill. He was diagnosed in 1999 as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. A psychiatrist warned him that his constant drug abuse could lead to psychotic behaviour.

Yet more recently specialists concluded that he was not mentally ill, and was even cunningly fabricating the symptoms of mental illness; the jury thought that too. Personally I should have thought that it was evidence in itself of madness — of diminished responsibility — to break into strangers’ houses and kill them horribly just for the buzz of it; sane people don’t do that.

As his family said last week: “This tragedy is one of human and organisational failings. We have posed over 100 questions to the police and the health services — we want those questions answered. Why, despite our incessant pleas to health services, social services and the police, was Daniel often turned away, passed from one group of professionals to another and left without the support and help he so obviously and desperately needed?”

This painful truth emerges again and again. The murder of John Monckton, the Chelsea banker, raised alarming questions about the probation services. The parole board let one of Monckton’s killers out of jail despite an official assessment that he was 91% likely to commit a violent offence again. As for the probation services that dealt with him thereafter, four officers were suspended and a report by the chief inspector of probation found “collective failure”. (The officers have been reinstated.)

Such “failure” is almost bound to occur under the government’s early release arrangements. Prisoners are normally considered for early release after serving half their term; a three-man panel then has an average of 20 minutes to look at a report from prison officers and from the probation officer who is due to supervise the offender after release. Following the withdrawal in April 2004 of funding for interviews, the panel usually does not set eyes on the criminal it is setting free. The risks are glaringly obvious and are compounded by recruitment problems and overwork in the probation service, along with a departmental shake-up and merger with the prison service.

The Climbié case and others have revealed the chronic inadequacies of social services. They can perhaps best be judged by what happens to children in care, and it is not good. The state makes a bad parent and its foster children all too often end up illiterate, unemployed, delinquent and in jail. As for mental health services, the care in the community movement did away with many secure psychiatric wards, so there are now few places, and some of them are hell holes. As a result deeply disturbed people like Gonzalez now have to take their chances in the so-called community, a risk to themselves and to others.

And our prisons are overcrowded; it’s no coincidence that there is growing pressure on judges and magistrates not to send people to jail. Only last week it emerged that the Sentencing Guidelines Council is likely to recommend that rapists and other violent sex offenders should serve shorter sentences.

The painful truth is that we need more prisons and more secure mental hospitals. The public needs protection. In the end we don’t care whether dangerous people are mad or bad or abused in childhood. We just want them to be kept away from us — rehabilitated if possible, but locked up. Parole and tagging are not working.

The usual liberal cry that this country locks up more people than others is simply misleading. It’s true that Britain imprisons more people per capita than any other major European country. But as the think tank Reform points out, that doesn’t take into account the relatively high level of crime in this country. There is more crime per capita here. Given the levels of crime, we don’t lock up many people relatively. A more revealing measure of a country’s imprisonment rate is the number of prisoners per thousand crimes committed. On this scale, Britain sends fewer people to prison, relatively, than most European countries.

If there were more prisons, they would be better prisons. They would be less crowded and less brutal. They could offer more help and guidance to prisoners; inmates would spend less time banged up and more time on rehabilitation, on learning to read. Some prisoners, like Gonzalez perhaps, cannot be helped. But they can at least be kept from harming others, and that ought to be done in much more civilised surroundings than we have now.