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Crime, and push to curb it, appear overboard in Britain

Talk about a Chamber of Commerce nightmare _ a five-story floating prison arrives in port just as your waterfront city is trying to beef up tourism.

That's the prospect facing folks in Portland, on England's scenic southwest coast. Last week, one ugly hulk of a vessel purchased from the New York Department of Corrections was barged into town for likely use as Britain's first floating prison since Victorian times.

The need is obvious. The prison population in England and Wales now stands at 59,156, less than 1,000 shy of capacity. And the numbers are rising at the rate of 600 a month.

There is a perception here _ as in the United States _ that crime is getting out of hand. But there is also concern here _ as in the United States _ that the highly politicized push to curb crime is taking a disastrous toll on basic civil rights.

In fact, its own record is so poor it seems a tad hypocritical for Britain to criticize China's threatened clampdown on human rights in Hong Kong.

"If you live in Britain today, your house can be broken into by the police or the secret service, your telephone can be tapped and your bedroom or office can be bugged simply because a politician or senior policeman commands it," the Economist notes. "A warrant from a judge is not necessary.

"The police can also hold you for up to seven days without a warrant, and then release you without explanation. You can be arrested for joining a peaceful, non-obstructive demonstration. If stopped by the police for anything, you had better answer questions put to you promptly because if you are later charged with a crime, the jury will be invited to conclude from your silence that you are guilty."

As if this were not enough, Britain's home secretary, Michael Howard, has proposed 33 more changes designed to speed up the criminal justice system. Among them _ denying the right to trial by jury for thousands of suspects accused of theft, muggings and certain drug and sex offenses.

The right to a trial by one's peers is among the centuries-old bulwarks of British justice. Even many law-and-order types were aghast at the suggestion.

Other Howard proposals would restrict access to legal aid, and station prosecutors right in the police department _ making things more convenient, the home secretary explained, for defendants who want to plead guilty on the spot. That way they could be sentenced and on their way to jail in just 24 hours.

Who said justice can't be swift.

Howard is a Conservative, and his party is almost certain to lose the upcoming national elections. But civil libertarians might not find any great allies in the Labor Party, whose head, Tony Blair, is another tough-on-crime man. He has even proposed a bill making it a criminal offense to deny the Holocaust existed.

How did things get this way in a nation famous for justice and fair play?

Britain, unlike the United States, does not have a constitutionally enshrined bill of rights. Balancing the rights of the accused and the rights of society rests largely with Parliament, a political body that has tended to value crime-busting measures over individual liberties. As the Economist points out, nearly two-thirds of Britain's violations of the European Convention on Human Rights are the direct work of the politicians in Parliament.

The government is under increasing pressure to adopt the European Convention's bill of rights. That way British judges would have the power _ which they now lack _ to decide whether new laws or government actions infringe on civil liberties.

In the meantime, enough people are going to jail that Portland by next month may have a floating prison with up to 500 inmates. Although some local officials worry about the effect on tourism, the mayor of Portland has reacted with the traditionally stiff upper lip.

"It's not a black day for Portland," insists Mayor Valerie Durston. "I think it is a possibility, knowing our macabre outlook on life, that people will actually come to Portland to have a look at it."