Train robber Biggs and the question of parole.

Those of you who may be wondering whether politicians should get involved in the criminal justice system may like to consider the case of Ronnie Biggs.

There is a theory that suggests that with the passing of time criminals are romanticised by the public, books are written about them and films are made in which they are portrayed in such a way as to enable the audience to be able to relate to them.  But what of Ronnie Biggs?

The media still write about him in the context of 'The Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs' as if it should mean something to every living soul. 

For those of you who do not know about Ronnie, he came from  from Lambeth, South London.  He was a member of a 15-strong gang which planned and organised the interception of the Glasgow to London mail train as it passed through Buckinghamshire in August 1963.  They made off with £2.6m in used banknotes.

Ronnie  was given a 30-year prison sentence.  The courts were quick to signal to others what might happen to them should they embark on any similarly audacious plan.  After 15 months Biggs escaped from Wandsworth prison by climbing a 30ft wall and hiding in a furniture van.

He was on the run for more than 30 years, living in Spain, Australia and Brazil.  Ronnie Biggs returned to the UK voluntarily in 2001 mainly, it was alleged, on health grounds. He was locked up in Belmarsh high security prison on his return before being moved to a specialist medical unit at Norwich prison. Up until then he  was spotted occasionally and filmed or photographed apparently enjoying the good life in exotic locations.  The question is whether he has paid a high enough price to be let home?

Earlier in July this year, a  parole board recommended that he be released but Justice Secretary, Jack  Straw, intervened and disagreed.  Jack straw has since justified his decision on the basis that Ronnie had not expressed remorse for his crimes and stated that Biggs remains "wholly unrepentant" for his actions.

Ronnie's son, Michael Biggs, said about his father's recent hospitalisation  "It's the worst he's ever been. The doctors have just told me to rush there."

There have been instances when we may have begun to wonder whether we have been careful enough about sending the right persons to prison.   There are some nasty and dangerous people on parole or licence or remand and they have gone on to commit offences again.  These incidents have quite rightly triggered a debate and on occasions a change in government policy, noticeably changes in the law relating to young persons carrying knives, as a result of a high level of teenage deaths in knife related crimes.

One would hope that the efforts of the families of victims of such tragedies and others have enlightened us as to the need to tackle such social concerns and reduce the risk of harm to individuals. However,  does Ronnie Biggs still fall into the category of 'dangerous' or 'represent a high risk to the public'?

One might argue that the criminal justice system including the judiciary and parole board should be able to deal with these rare cases.  Experience should tell us that government ministers are politicians after all and not necessarily well equipped to use vetoes of this kind. 

It does not seem very long ago that the then Home Secretary, John Reid, (before the Home Office functions were split following John Reid's remarks that the Home Office was not fit for purpose) wrote a letter to the judiciary urging them to only send to prison offenders who represented a danger or unreasonable risk to the public.  With so many repeat offenders, bail offenders and 'supervised' offenders (i.e. those who offend whilst being supervised within the community as an alternative to custody) it seems hardly surprising that within days, Jack Straw has changed his mind and authorised the release of Ronnie on humanitarian grounds on condition that Ronnie behaves himself.


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