Youth development

GETTING THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM WE CHOOSE Part 2: ”Think of a number……any number”

At the conclusion of the opening part of this series, I posed a question. If you got the right answer I hope the elation derived from that fact alone will be sufficient, as no prizes were being offered.

If we are agreed, as I suggested in Part 1, that there are certain aspects of our lives, existence and bodies over which we can demonstrably be shown to have no control whatsoever, let me now go a little deeper and suggest –before we even get to the science of the matter- that you really have no control over another integral part of your make-up; something that may make you a little more uncomfortable and, probably, defensive. I am going to suggest that not only do you not have any control over things such as your DNA and genetic make-up, and your date, location and place of birth, for example, but more importantly –and possibly from your point of view, more worryingly- you do not have any control over your thoughts either. That’s right. Let me say it again. You have no control over your thoughts.

I would like to claim the credit for this seemingly radical proposition, but I cannot. In his recent book “Free Will” (2012, Free Press), Sam Harris explores some of these themes in far more depth and far more eloquently than I can hope to do. What I hope to do, however, is blow some of the intellectual froth from the surface and at least stimulate you in a direct way to consider something intimate to yourself: your own thoughts and thought process. What has this to do with the criminal justice system? Plenty, I will argue.

But first, another challenge. Think of a number……..any number. It can be any whole number you choose from 1 to, well, the highest number your mind can possibly envisage. That should give you essentially an infinite choice and, in that regard, I suggest I am giving you the freest choice you will ever get in your entire life. Look at it this way; in the coffee shop, my supposed choice was limited, not so much by the size of the display board as the stock the coffee shop had. If, for example, I had asked for ‘Deadly Nightshade and Guacamole’ flavoured tea, I suspect I would have presented the barista with a challenge she could not have risen to, at least for several days. Even my choice of exotic beverage, whatever it may be, would eventually be exhausted by the fact that all resources on the planet are limited. There are only so many possible choices of ‘tea’ I can have, thanks to nature’s limitations. So the choice I am offering to you, literally any number from an unlimited number of possibilities, must be as good as you will ever get in terms of a free choice.

So, have you chosen yet? Take your time; there really is no hurry. If you want to go and get a cup of coffee, or even have a holiday abroad specifically to consider this very matter, please go ahead. I will still be here waiting. I want to do nothing to limit your freedom to choose. However long you have taken –again a totally free choice for you- let me assume that you now have chosen a number. I say immediately that I am not a mind-reader, so I don’t know what number you have selected – and once again, no prizes are involved. It could have been any number.

Now try again, but this time focus on your thought process. Think about how, and what, is happening in your mind in the process of choosing any random number.

Now, I don’t know what number you are thinking of, and it really does not matter. For argument’s sake, let’s say you have selected 65. Now let me ask you: why did you alight on that particular number? Focus on your thought process. Perhaps you are sixty-five years old, or have sixty-five pounds in your bank account. Was the number you chose significant for any reason you can understand or make sense of?

But even if you had ‘65’, or whatever number you actually chose, lurking somewhere in your conscious mind, why choose it? I mean, you had infinity to choose from. While you were considering your selection the second time, did the number 346 ever feature in your conscious mind, for example? Or 34,987? Or 3? I could go on and on suggesting numbers which you could have selected, but didn’t; numbers which you obviously knew existed and could possibly have alighted on, but which never presented themselves consciously to you. The fact is that any number, from 1 to infinity and beyond were available for you; and almost all of them, I can guarantee, were ‘eliminated’ from your decision-making process with no thought of your own whatsoever, because your mind never brought them into your consciousness. If that is the case, and I suggest it is, how could you ever have been ‘free’ to select any of them? They just never materialised; for whatever reason, your brain, your mind just refused to offer it to you for consideration. And was the reason it failed to do so any fault of yours? And could you have done anything about it anyway?

Let me go further. What is the next thing you are going to think? You may answer ‘Well, I am reading this, and this is what I am thinking about’, which is a fair comment. However, have you ever noticed how things just ‘pop’ into your mind without you ever, literally, ‘thinking’ about them. Maybe for some reason you have just remembered as you were reading that you left the iron on in the kitchen, or that you forgot to post a letter to your sister, or you ask yourself ‘Why is he using that font?’, or any one of an infinite number of random ‘unthought’ thoughts. Where did those thoughts come from? And have you ever been talking to someone, listening to whatever they are saying, and then thought to yourself something along the lines ‘You look just like Bill Clinton’. Where did that thought come from? You weren’t inviting it, you weren’t expecting it; it just ‘happened’, out of the blue, from nowhere. It simply ‘pops’ into our consciousness, and we are powerless to prevent it. Now focus on exactly how many times a day this happens. And focus on the process by which it happens. Your thoughts, in terms of what you think (by being brought into your consciousness) are out of your control. They either happen by some process of ‘cause and effect’ or they are utterly random; but either way, you have no control over them. This was my reason for posing the question I did at the conclusion of the last part: I suggest that you had just as much chance of guessing what I was going to write next as you had of knowing what your next thought would be, and had as much control over it.

Before going further, let me make a concession at this point. You may say ‘You have a point about that, but once the ‘thought’ is brought into your consciousness, then you have a free choice about what to do with it.’ I will return to this in another Part. At this point, however, if you concede that what ‘pops’ into your consciousness, a ‘thought’ is something you are powerless to control because it is essentially given to you by your brain/mind, it is then ‘there’. It is a thought, and something you cannot either prevent or control. Try telling yourself not to think about something; in telling yourself, you are proving you are thinking about it, and if it remains in your mind (and for however long) it will not be down to anything you can consciously do. And if you forget it for a while, you will never stop it coming back in, when your brain/mind slides it back in to your consciousness.

Thoughts are personal. Thoughts are private. They are the essence of what makes us who we are. They, like numbers, appear to be infinite. We are told thoughts can be ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. They can be dominated by emotions, which can be affected by all manner of things from mechanical (misfiring synapses in the brain, for example) to personal experiences. They are the ‘holding pen’ of our essence; sometimes we express them to others and sometimes we do not.

I once knew someone who didn’t like ‘black people’. It didn’t matter where they came from or what their personality might be. I once asked him why he thought like that. He didn’t even give me time to finish the sentence before providing me with a seemingly endless list of reasons, none of which I really need to rehearse. However, in summary, he just thought ‘black people should go home’. That was his ‘thought’. As he spoke, whatever part of my being that responds to things I strongly disagree with was being activated, and the thoughts that began to appear within my ‘conscious mind’, from wherever they came, created the strongest sense of negativity within me towards him. Again, from somewhere, my conscious thoughts were primarily directed towards labels: racist, bigot, intolerant, and so on. I didn’t ask those particular labels to flood my conscious thoughts; they just ‘popped in’. I didn’t think of a list and choose them. It was only, much later, that I began to ask myself –again for no reason I can explain, and can therefore take no moral credit or responsibility for- whether if I myself could not control the responses that my mind was bringing into my consciousness at that moment, could he for the things that were ‘popping’ into his? My immediate feelings were being presented to me from, I would suggest, internal and organic workings of my brain, for which I am not responsible, and programming and conditioning throughout my entire life to that point – again something for which I was not responsible. I wasn’t actually ‘choosing’ to experience the feeling of despising his ‘thoughts’ for any better or more morally superior reasons than he was ‘choosing’ to have them brought into his consciousness. In fact, I realised that if I had been born when he was, with his DNA, his mother and father, his life experiences, and every atom and molecule of my body was switched for his, it would be me who was saying these things; and would I be in any way culpable for that?

I also realised that if, by dint of circumstance, I had been born with a different set of genes, whereby my skin was no longer a (hopefully) healthy shade of pink, but brown or black, and I had been sat opposite the man I have just described, what he said to me would almost inevitably have amounted to a ‘hate crime’ under the laws of this country; something for which he could be arrested, detained against his will, prosecuted and punished for. Of course, you may say that even if he couldn’t help his thoughts, for all the reasons I have suggested, he could have held his lips together and said nothing. I would contend, for reasons I will later outline in greater detail, that whether he would have done is something he was not free to choose; but even if he was, there is the issue of whether it is in any way justifiable to criminalise his ‘freedom’ to simply express thoughts which he cannot control, however unpleasant we may consider them to be.

In the next part I am going to suggest going out of our minds for a while and taking a closer look at how some of this connects with the criminal justice system.

Part 3: “The philosophy of the criminal justice system: ‘I think, therefore I am……..guilty?”

Empower Women – Resist Justice – Transform Lives

Determined womenEmpower Women – Resist Justice – Transform Lives (click)


The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has launched a call-to-action for interested parties to build a network of people in order to get to the root of problems faced by women in the criminal justice system. Of course, this is a matter close to my heart and is no secret. Women are shoehorned into a justice system designed by men for men. I am not a feminist who is ranting that women are treated unfairly in comparison to men, I believe that both genders should be treated fairly. I am a woman and I have been through the justice system and I have direct experience to understand what challenges are faced by women in the CJS. In particular, older women, such as myself, who do not fit into the youth offending age range. There are very few services out there who have refined their services enough to drive down to the direct needs of women.

The Centre for Crime & Justice Studies was one of the first organisations I contacted last year post-sentence who actually listened to me around what I found was lacking not only in services, but in the justice system as a whole. The system fails those it can help the most. Help to keep families together, to ensure that children are cared for and to truly enable women who are in the hands of justice, to empower themselves to rise again and lead a decent and workable life where they can care for their children and sustain themselves.  The MoJ’s mantra, “Justice must fit all” isn’t working and nor will it ever while women are shoehorned into the current system.

The Centre for Crime & Justice Studies have collaborated with Women in Prison to form a strong network of willing people and organisations to tackle and prioritise the needs of women rather than CJS objectives.

It is time – justice is about help, support, empowerment and dealing with injustice. I wholly support this and it means so much to me as a woman who has journeyed through the CJS. Let us support Women in Prison and CCJS as they have set the foundation to bring about some change and justice for women in a system that largely ignores women.


Aurora Youth Development Programme – West Midlands Fire Service

It was with great delight I attended the Aurora Youth Development Programme award ceremony at West Midlands HQ. Having covered this programme in Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, I was invited to see the programme in action. Three weeks ago, I met with the team headed up by Adrian Lydon in Cumbria. A trip to Cumbria is a bi-annual and residential event that forms part of the programme. It is quite clear the dedication of operational fire officers who work tirelessly with groups of young adults over a 10-12 month period.

I have covered previously in CL&J how the guillotine of the government has affected The Fire Service across the board. However, seeing The Aurora Programme in action has made me certain that without this vital service to the community of West Midlands, there would certainly be 150 young adults out there who would have little to concentrate on. This is not a charity nor is it a newly funded CRC company that is wrapped up in the world of funding rounds from NOMS. It is well respected and has fire service industry standards with vital risk assessments in place. The wider trust from people for The Fire Service is vast. Who doesn’t trust a fire officer? As a service, they surely are at the top of the list in polls.

So, after being strapped into a harness by chaps who looked like they knew a thing or two, I ventured up the side of a quarry in Borrowdale, Cumbria. I was swinging my safety helmet with all the courage of a woman who has seen a side or seven of life. My dog was at the bottom of the quarry looking at me pleadingly as I left him in safe hands of the instructors who would be greeting me at the end of what could only be described as a piece of knicker elastic. Apparently, I was going to zoom down this wire and the test runs made it look oh so easy.

Now, I don’t how many of you have been on the side of a quarry that is at least 120 feet high. Standing at the top of 120 feet and seeing young uns zoom down the knicker elastic effortlessly is one thing. The same young uns telling me, “Tracey, once you have done it, you will want to do it 100’s of times again” is not the most reassuring draft of statements I have ever come across. Two of the group’s participants were still up there and deals were struck if I threw, yes, threw myself onto the knicker elastic and skidaddled down said elastic into the safe hands of instructors at the bottom of the quarry. Talk about panic? Panic and I had a conversation and panic won. Well, at least for 45 seconds before I found myself attached to a hair clip (seriously, I have bigger hair clips than the grip which was attaching me to the knicker elastic) and PUSHED off the quarry side. Coops, one of the instructors, shouted “You’ve written about worse things than this” Ah, yes, words are cheap Coops, words are cheap.

As luck had it, the knicker elastic held. I ended up in the safe hands of “Wes” (finding a fire officer with a proper name is hard but here was Wes waiting to catch me) who instructed me to let go of hair grip, release one hand from somewhere and throw back a lever and get down. Eventually the words from our Wes “This has never happened before” and I was dangling as I fumbled with hair grip, knicker elastic and was suspended in mid air for 45 seconds at least. Thinking about the unattractiveness of it all is enough to make me shudder.

Exciting or wot??? But, spending time with the young adults and the team who welcomed made it all so much worth while. These young adults have suffered in that they are excluded from education or come from the CJS. There are no airs or graces and the dedication of this team moved me so much. Freddie the chocolate brown Labrador was bouncy and alert. He also had a part to play and my old Grandpa of a Labrador had a great time. Freddie is used to these trips and has been trained to round up the ones who drift behind the group. Freddie watches that all the group in intact and only when he is satisfied is Ade, one of group’s founders, allowed to continue.

It was with great pleasure I was asked to address the parents, Chief Superintendent Jo Smallwood, Chief Fire Officer Phil Loach, Cllor John Edwards, the Chair of West Midlands Fire Authority, Sue and who this programme was all about, the young adults at the award ceremony this last Monday evening at West Midlands HQ. I spoke with parents who openly told me how Aurora had given them their child back and how much better life is at home, proud parents who had previously despaired.

It is great programmes like this which are few and far between. People are people, yet the programme reunites families, enables children who are excluded from school to achieve something rather than be lost in a system that still, in the 21st century, loses its young. This programme has been developed from the heart and soul of The Fire Service and challenges behaviours as opposed to who those young adults truly are. With investment and time from the team who give up their own family time to work with these young people, what emerges is the product with which I was proud to be a part of. The award ceremony which gave young people the chance to swell with pride over their achievements. We talk often about how proud we are of our children, imagine staring adversity in the face and tackling some of the highest fells this country has, camping out and getting drenched each day. Of course the knicker elastic activity is fun and is known as a zipwire, nevertheless, this is a programme that deserves a wider audience. Yet somehow doesn’t need one. The results speak for themselves. Parents having their children back from the CJS, reintegrated into society and young adults who are determined to avoid trouble.

The current state of the CJS, with the Offender Rehabilitation Bill should take a leaf out of the Aurora programme and look at what currently works. The Aurora Youth Development Programme does.

Thank you, Aurora for pushing me off a 120 ft quarry side, but thank you for the great work you do. Tirelessly and aimlessly to bring us young adults we can be proud of and who are our next generation.

To Adrian, Sue and the team. Superb and thank you for welcoming me to share in this wonderful programme.