Now explain to these poor children how ‘progressive’ justice led to their father’s brutal murder
By Graham Grant
THE ordeal of Stacey McClelland and her three sons after the brutal murder of her partner is a purgatory almost beyond imagination.
Craig McClelland was stabbed to death by serial knife thug James Wright in an attack provoked by nothing other than the killer’s ‘blood lust’.
Wright had 16 previous convictions but had been judged suitable for early release from prison wearing an electronic tag, under a scheme known as Home Detention Curfew (HDC).
Remarkably, he remained at large for nearly six months after flouting his HDC – nicknamed ‘armchair custody’ – leaving him free to commit senseless slaughter on the streets of Paisley.
In her victim impact statement, Miss McClelland, 27, recounts watching her three-year-old son on his birthday building his daddy out of Lego, and the ‘devastating sound of my baby searching for his daddy in the night – constantly shouting on him’.
She told the court: ‘The way he flaps his arms in excitement whenever he sees a picture of his daddy, it completely breaks my heart.’
At the time of his murder last year, Mr McClelland, 31, had been studying at university and was planning a holiday to Amsterdam; his three sons were aged five, two and just eight months.
The psychological scars they will have to bear – calling out for a daddy who isn’t coming home, and making Lego models in his memory – will never truly heal, but their suffering is only compounded by the systemic faults that allowed Wright to stab their father to death in the street.
Rhetoric about curbing the knife menace has been a recurring theme under this government, but Wright, 25, was locked up for carrying a ‘sharp implement’ in public before being allowed out wearing an electronic tag to serve the rest of his sentence at home.
This disreputable practice is an insidious subversion of the judicial process, allowing sentences handed down from the bench to be effectively overturned by prison officials, who can free criminals after serving as little as a quarter of their terms.
HDC has a breach rate of 17 per cent, meaning almost one in five break their release conditions and are sent back to jail – or at least they are meant to be.
Wright roamed the streets for nearly six months despite the revocation of his curfew order – and despite the police being told about the breach.
Efforts were undertaken to locate Wright, we are assured, after the tagging firm G4S raised the alarm, but they were in vain.
About 1,000 prisoners are released on HDC every year, with between 300 and 400 out at any one time, raising the question of exactly how many warrants are outstanding for those who have flouted their orders.
Doubtless reviews of HDC will be promised; lessons will be learned; heavily redacted reports may even be published to reassure the public that it is a valuable method of rehabilitation for lower-level offenders – rather than an obscene affront to justice designed to empty prisons.
Under the SNP, the number of criminals being jailed is at its lowest in nearly 30 years while killers’ prison terms are the shortest for a decade, and electronic tagging orders increased by 34 per cent, from 1,643 to 2,200, between 2015–16 and 2017.
This form of tagging – euphemistically known as ‘restriction of liberty’ – is distinct from HDC but is part of the same set of policies – all of which are aimed ostensibly at keeping criminals out of jail.
Earlier this week, David Strang, the outgoing HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said closing jails is the best way to cut reoffending, as short stretches behind bars prohibit the rehabilitation of inmates.
Meanwhile a presumption against jail terms of less than a year will be introduced by the end of 2018, after Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said he believes that ‘extending the presumption [currently for jail terms of less than three months] is in line with our progressive approach to criminal justice policy’.
‘More than that,’ he said last year, ‘in concert with our ongoing approach to delivering safer and stronger communities, it is about being the progressive and socially inclusive nation we want to be.’
A massive expansion in tagging is imminent – one which, in any sane universe, would now be put on permanent hold.
Last week, Mr Matheson told a meeting of police superintendents that most of us don’t experience crime – an assertion that followed Police Scotland statistics showing a rise of nearly 20 per cent in reported rapes in the last year, and an average of more than 900 incidents of anti-social behaviour every day.
‘Progressive’ is an increasingly nebulous catch-all term with multiple official applications – it was used earlier this year by the SNP to justify tax hikes.
But what exactly are we are progressing towards, when institutions that are supposed to be dedicated to public protection create a system that allows criminals to serve some of their time in the comfort of their own lounges, and to break the terms of their curfews with impunity?
And how ‘socially inclusive’ can any country be when victims are written off as collateral damage – a necessary by-product of the wider drive to reduce the prison population still further?
Perhaps, as one of his last acts in office, Mr Strang, who called for comfier bedding for prisoners during his tenure, should meet Mrs McClelland and watch her toddler son assemble that sorry plastic surrogate for his vanished father.
For his part, Mr Matheson could take a momentary break from devising the next big push to make prisons no-go zones for serious criminals to listen to her recount the horror of her son’s heart-rending cries for his daddy echoing around her home.
But don’t hold your breath: it was made all too plain last month that our parliamentarians hold victims in contempt when they admitted that none of them had been consulted in the course of an inquiry which concluded that all prisoners, regardless of their crimes, should be allowed to vote.
As for why Wright was allowed to remain at large, as the sentencing judge Lord Matthews said yesterday: ‘I have no doubt that questions will be asked about that but I am afraid I have no answers.’
Amid the institutional blame-shifting certain to commence this week, it should be remembered that HDC is a political invention, introduced under a Labour government in 2006 and heavily promoted by the SNP.
And the argument for a presumption against supposedly ineffectual shorter jail terms is based on a failure to comprehend that a spell in prison provides potentially life-saving respite for neighbourhoods living in fear of serial offenders.
That plan – together with HDC and the proposed escalation of electronic tagging – must all be ditched immediately, if the justice system is to retain any vestigial trace not only of credibility, but also of basic human decency.