Friday, April 13, 2007
No fixed abode
I've been a magistrate for three months and on the whole there haven't been many surprises. Most crimes are committed by men, usually under the influence of alcohol. Very few of the offenders have jobs. Most of them have children but don't live with the mother and almost all of them have turned over a new leaf, if their solicitors are to be believed. It could make you very cynical, but in fact I generally find myself thinking 'There but for the grace of God...'
The one big shock that I've had is the disparity between people's appearances and their age. This morning our first case involved a man who was accused of being drunk and disorderly. The defendant was called and a confused-looking man staggered into the court and took his place in the dock. His rough, dirty clothes and sunburned skin suggested that he was probably a vagrant and if I had to guess his age, I would have said that he was 56. I looked at his personal details and thought that I'd made a mistake. I checked the details again and then heard the man confirm that he was 38-years-old.
Most of us are aware how diet and lifestyle can affect our health, but there is nothing like seeing the reality of of what homelessness and substance abuse does to people. A few weeks earlier I saw an elderly man with a white beard that made him look like Santa Claus. He was only 12 years older than me.
I don't know why the mentally ill are still being processed through the prison system. It's over 20 years since Margaret Thatcher introduced her 'care in the community' policy which closed down the Victorian mental asylums and placed the mentally ill back in mainstream society. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the end result is a disaster and the prison population has been swelled by the ranks of the mad. One frustrated prison officer said to me 'I joined this service to look after prisoners, not become a psychiatric nurse.'