Thursday, June 30, 2011

Booze and You Lose

You can be addicted to adrenalin, tanning, body-building, overeating, arson, undereating, texting, gambling, sex, work, porn, cosmetic surgery, computer games, self-harm, power, powerlessness, smoking, masturbation, caffeine, exercising, stealing, violence, vomiting, exposing yourself, social networking, shopping, religion, pleasing people, perfectionism, collecting junk, making money and to any one of a thousand of pharmacology's greatest "hits".

The Ministry of Sound reckon you can be addicted to bass and Robert Palmer points out you can also be addicted to lurve.

But it's the addiction to alcohol that is the one that I find the most horrifically fascinating.

How can it be so widespread in all cultures, so apparently random in its victims and why is it so difficult/impossible to cure ?

Although alcoholics come in all shapes and sizes, end-stage alcoholics have had all the personality drained out of them, and yes they look and behave very similarly indeed. And unfortunately that's the kind of alcoholic we get through the Magistrates court.

Unless you're a social worker or a Magistrate or live with an alcoholic yourself, I'm not convinced you would know how damaged these guys and gals are. You'll maybe have an image of drunk people shouting, fighting and chucking up in the street on a Saturday night. Most of these people aren't alcoholics at all - they'll feel rotten in the morning, sleep most of Sunday and have a quiet night on  Sunday. Merely enthusiastic amateurs.

Let me take you through the five levels of true alcoholism :-

(1) Adaptation - you drink so much and so often that your body chemistry changes so that the same level of alcohol has less and less effect.

(2) Losing Control - you drink to avoid feeling lousy rather than drinking to feel good. Thanks to your body's adaptation you need to drink so much you can't remember what happened the previous night. You don't drink just in the evenings - every hour is happy hour now. People start noticing and your work is noticeably affected.

(3) Manipulation - your life, assets and friends are used like chess pieces to get you the drink that is your main reason for living.

(4) Control, What Control ? - drink, pass out, drink more, repeat until drink gone, beg/borrow/steal more drink, drink that, repeat

(5) End State - body and mind broken, alcohol is consumed as a reflex until death occurs through organ failure, poisoning, choking, hypothermia or suicide.

We had a late stage alcoholic in the dock this Monday. He was overweight and sweat was gushing out of him. He'd been picked up on Friday night stealing meat from a supermarket to swap for booze and so when we saw him he hadn't had a drink in 60 hours and was really struggling. He had advanced heart disease, diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver. He was in his fifties but he had the face of an eighty year old who had died the previous month.

He had a considerable history of crime - back when he was just a Stage 1 or Stage 2 alcoholic, he had raped and burgled houses. Recently though he was only capable of drunk and disorderly and shoplifting - a cynic would have said that in this case, alcohol does seem to have done the world a favour.

He had failed many times to attend alcohol treatment programmes and recently the Magistrates had adopted a familiar pattern of giving Conditional Discharges where they could and short prison sentences when they couldn't. We decided this was one of those "couldn't" occasions, so off to prison he went.

Well, not quite. He reportedly collapsed in the cells and had to treated by paramedics. I'm sure the prison authorities won't thank us for dumping him on them, but what exactly were we meant to do ?

In a perfect world, maybe we would stuff him in a taxi to The Priory where he would receive the medical and psychology help he needed before being released, a new man,  back into a society to which he would now be capable of contributing.

**Rude word deleted ** !

You can't effectively section somebody for stealing bacon. And would people start feigning addiction to get a nice cushy rest-cure rather than prison ? And what about the shops - the law needs to protect them from having their shelves stripped bare. Remember, it's not all about the criminal - the victims' interests also need to be considered.

And anyway, Amy Winehouse continues to lose her fight against alcoholism despite receiving the best help that money can buy, so there's no guarantee that even the "dream" solution would get the job done.

I had a momentary mental panic about sending a dying, sick man to prison. But that's what Magistrates do on your behalf. If you don't like it, write to your MP and tell us to stop.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Legalese 101

Part of an irregular series on court vocabulary and the way it is interpreted by this Magistrate:-
  • Melee
    • Translation : "My client did not hit the complainant, but even if he did, it was an accident 
    • Example Usage : "I maintain that the broken nose was most likely sustained in the ensuing melee rather than as a result of any premeditated act by my client".
  • My client tells me that ...
    • Translation : the phrase itself has no meaning except to prefix a statement that is at best a half-truth but which might persuade a bench to think twice about imposing custody.
    • Example Usage : "My client tells me that he has an interview for a job on Monday"
    • Contrast this with  : "My client has an interview for a job on Monday" - this is most likely true because the brief will have actually seen proof before making such a verifiable statement in a court of law.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


I didn't have much confidence that I was going to enjoy my training session on the new guidelines on Assault. I had a sinking feeling that that this would be yet another attempt by The Powers to stop me imprisoning people who deserve prison just to save a few quid.

In fact the Guidelines are rather good. You feel there are some fine minds at work here and the detail indicates a huge amount of practical experience. True, there is a slight softening of the penalties involved in low level assault, but equally there is a hardening at the upper end which was a pleasant surprise.

I remember well a Common Assault case that I blogged about back in 2009. This was a hateful case where a man had argued with his pregnant wife (she was sitting on the stairs in their house) - she had yelled back that he couldn't hit her because she was pregnant - he shrugged and made sure that all his punches were to her face while in the background their young daughter was yelling for him to stop.

For some reason this was charged by the CPS as a Common Assault (s39) to which the defendent gratefully pleaded guilty, ensuring that all we could give was a tiny prison sentence or a Community sentence.

Under the new rules this would go right to the top end of the newly extended guidelines thanks to increased culpability and increased harm (premeditation, presence of a child, pregnant woman afraid for unborn child, sustained assault) and suddenly our wife-beater is looking to get the full six months (less guilty plea allowance). Doesn't quite make up for the CPS undercharging the offence, but that's someone else's issue to resolve.

One of the worked examples in the training materials concerns a drunk who punches an ambulance worker  in the face while they were doing their duty. As Stanetta is intending to pursue a career as a paramedic, I'm probably not the right Magistrate to ask what the correct punishment for this should be. The model answer is "High Level Community Punishment" - I'd prefer something involving electricity.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Only Way is Ethics

The most honest person in the world lives in Brentwood, Essex.

My rucksack and the shiny laptop I bought last week stayed on the train when I got off at Ilford. I ran around headlessly going through phases of panic, nausea and finally resignation after trying all the things you try when you lose something.

The next day I got a call from the station at Brentwood - my rucksack had been handed in by the most honest person in the world, they had found my phone number inside and could I please come over and collect it.
An experience like that gives you a nice warm feeling - someone out there did the right thing for someone they didn't know.

Thanks, whoever you are for giving me back my rucksack. my laptop and my faith in humanity.