Friday, July 24, 2009

Reported back

The law and order committee has reported back [PDF] on the Gangs and Organised Crime Bill. The bill is part of the government's "tough on crime" posturing, and makes several changes to the law around organised criminal groups - notably doubling the penalty for participation and allowing judges to consider gang membership as an aggravating factor at sentencing. The bill would also broaden the definition of a criminal group, and broaden police wiretapping powers.

The "gang membership as an aggravating factor" provision constitutes collective punishment, and arguably punishment without trial (in that gang members convicted of a crime by a jury will effectively also be convicted of and punished for a second crime based on the actions of their associates). Increasing sentences for a crime nobody is ever prosecuted for may get headlines, but it is unlikely to be an effective deterrent. The broader definition is an attempt to "solve" that, by lowering the threshold for prosecution - so if the police are too lazy to do their jobs properly and convict people of real crimes, they can convict them of crimes of association instead. Which is beginning to smell a lot like the bogus "crimes of association" the French government uses against those they want to call "terrorists"...

Finally, the wiretapping threshold. Wiretaps have a definite role in solving serious and organised crime. But under this bill, the government would be able to tap people's phones for anything with a penalty of more than 7 years - which includes burglary and robbery, about as ordinary as you can get. And so the exceptional becomes the mundane, and no doubt will soon become the trivial. It's a perfect example of the authoritarian slippery slope in action, and why should be very careful indeed about granting additional powers to police.