Breaking the cycle of crisis and crime: the role of magistrates

For the last edition of the Magistrates’ Association’s magazine, we spoke to three of our members, DeQeon, Pete and Anthony to explore what led to them being caught up in the cycle, how they broke free of it, and how magistrates can support in people’s journey to desistance.

Q: Sometimes a magistrate will say “I’ve seen this person in front of me 20+ times. On the 20th time I have no choice but to send them to prison.” In your experience, why do people end up in court many times?

Anthony: It can be because you need to feed your kids; it can be because you need to feed an addiction; it can be lots of things. But there’s one thing that everyone will have in common, which is their difficult circumstances.

Pete: You need a magistrate to tap into those circumstances. People end up back in court over and over again because the underlying issue isn’t being addressed. The issue could be trauma, not coping with life—various different things. It’s an easy option, sending someone to prison. You don’t have to deal with rehabilitating the person in the community. The lack of resources in the community is why people keep coming back.

DeQeon: For me, it was homelessness, a bad relationship with my family, having nowhere to live, getting into arguments with my family where the police would get called out… People don’t always go out to commit crime, it’s the circumstances they’re in that is the driver. They’ll end up back in front of the magistrates for drug use, for small things. But if the foundations aren’t properly laid for recovery or rehabilitation, they’ll just go back to the same environment.

Q: Magistrates have the power to sentence people to prison sentences of up to six months. Have you ever served a short prison sentence? What was your experience of it?

Pete: I started serving short sentences back in my teens, for various different reasons. It wasn’t a deterrent, because the problem that I was facing at the time—addiction—was the underlying issue, that wasn’t being addressed by going to prison for a few weeks. My addiction got worse, and I committed more crimes.

Q: So, would you say that short prison sentences don’t work? Why do you think that is?

Pete: Short prison sentences uproot that person from their community. The person comes out of prison, and they face even bigger challenges. People get released and put back in the same environment they were in. It’s all to do with their environment. It costs more to lock someone up than to send them to rehab. Prison is like a flip of a coin—some people find the right services, but not everyone. You need change, you need reform. But there aren’t resources available for that, and that is still ongoing.

Q: What was it that, in the end, enabled you to break out of the cycle of crisis and crime?

Anthony: I was given a final warning, but one that recognised what had happened to me. The magistrate said, “if you didn’t have a young daughter you’d be going to prison, but because you grew up in the care system, I’m not going to make you another statistic.” He gave me a second chance. He actually took the time to understand me and my background before sentencing and asked me to speak about my own circumstances. I was scared but think that helped in the end.

DeQeon: What helped me was meeting a person who just got me: my probation officer. Meeting the right worker, someone who can relate to you and who understands where you’re coming from is so important. Sometimes, people are just robotic and doing their day-to-day work. They don’t understand what makes you go out and offend, the lifestyle you’ve been around, why it’s your norm and that you’ve been brought up around it. When you’re in an environment where crime and chaos are always going on, it’s hard not to go and do that, even when you’re trying your best. You have to change your whole community, but you can’t do that. The situation keeps being put back in your face, and you’re put back in the same place.

Q: Can you tell me more about your probation officer?

DeQeon: The woman who helped me, my probation officer, also put me in touch with Revolving Doors. She was like a mother to me. I’m bad at getting to appointments, such as with the psychiatrist, or the GP. I just wouldn’t go and sort it. But she would always keep up with me, pick me up, take me to those appointments—some people find it hard to go to those kinds of appointments. I was lucky, she cared. A lot of people don’t. She advocated for me, she knew I wasn’t a criminal, I just had nowhere to live and was having issues with my family.

Q: What about you, Pete? What enabled you to break the cycle of crisis and crime?

Pete: For me, it was realising the impact I was having on my community. I went through a process of restorative justice in prison that involved people impacted by what I had done, and I got some resolve around that. But the underlying issue was still there—addiction. When I was released, I went through rehab—I’ve done four treatment centres. People come to those centres with a lot of trauma. It wasn’t a lack of determination that meant I was relapsing, it was just managing my life. That was my journey, and it’s all about not giving up on people.

Q: What was your experience like at court? Did you understand what was happening?

DeQeon: My experiences have all been negative. I’ve been OK, because I can speak and articulate myself well. I always understood what was going on, but I could imagine some people don’t. I could see my friends not understanding what was going on, because no one explains it to you. They should educate people going through court about what happens, when and why.

Anthony: I had a brother who was a solicitor, so I understood everything, but obviously not everyone has that experience.

Pete: It’s a mixed bag really, I’ve had so many different experiences. You’re just there stood before the dock; you just don’t feel valued as a person. They don’t go into your circumstances and what led you to that point. A lot of the time you’re not able to speak for yourself—it’s all right to speak to a probation officer about your pre-sentence report, and then they start unravelling your experience, but you’re not always given the chance to give your interpretation. When you’re not able to articulate that, you feel powerless.

Q: Finally, if you could speak to a magistrate face to face now, what is the one thing that you would tell them?

Anthony: Treat everybody like a human. Don’t be a robot, straight to the book, stereotyping people. Imagine if it was your son or daughter walking through that door. Will you have that same energy for that child? Think with your heart and mind, logic and emotion.

Pete: Listen to the person in front of you. Treat that person as an individual. It doesn’t matter what colour, creed, background you’re from. You’re a human being and obviously, something has failed for you to be coming through the criminal justice system. It should be acknowledged that something has gone wrong in that person’s life, whatever it is. It’s about listening and trying to draw empathy and understanding. Show a bit more compassion, and less judgment. Because magistrates are from a different class, they don’t see it sometimes—they’re sometimes detached from the society you live in. The reality is, that’s a human being in front of you—it could be your son, daughter, cousin, anyone. They can be too quick to hit the hammer down and not treat the underlying problem.

DeQeon: Listen to who is in front of you. You get a pre-sentence report, but you don’t get to talk about your own story or what you’ve been through, so they don’t hear it from your voice, or understand where people are coming from. Sometimes the reports don’t feel like your story at all and don’t talk about the progress you’ve made, like going to the GP and psychiatrist appointments when before you couldn’t. The magistrate might be from a middle-class family, with a good job, so there’s a lack of understanding about what other people go through. A lot of magistrates, they haven’t been down that lane, they don’t understand other people’s experiences, because they’ve never seen it themselves, up close. I feel like sometimes they just think of you as some black kid whose committed a crime. They need to talk to young people, a lot of young people, to understand where they’re coming from and their background. Not everyone comes from a nice home or family.

This article was originally published in the Magistrate magazine, available to members on the Magistrates’ Association website.