Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Florida holds 12-year-old child in solitary confinement

I heard this story first on Five Live this morning, and read it again here in a Florida on-line newspaper.

The newspaper story doesn't really give the full background to the case, which is pretty horrific. The 12-year-old involved, Cristian Fernandez, killed his 2-year-old brother, and it is for that which he is in jail. However, Cristian's mother was only 12 herself when he was born, and his own father - in his late teens at the time - didn't play any part in Cristian's upbringing in Miami. His mother then got together with the father of her younger son, still living in Miami. The stepfather was abusive to the children, physically, emotionally and sexually, before at some point killing himself. At this point Cristian's mother decided to move away from Miami, and headed north to Jacksonville.

It was at some point after then that Cristian killed his brother.

The prosecutor then decided to try Cristian as an adult for murder - something which, as I recall, still attracts the death penalty in Florida. He's therefore being held in an adult prison, along with adult prisoners - and if you've seen any of Louis Theroux's recent series you'll have an idea what conditions in Florida's adult prisons are like.

The prosecutors seem to think this is OK because he's being held in solitary confinement. A child in solitary confinement? That's bad enough for an adult, but children need to be active and moving about. He's stuck in a 30 square feet cell, only allowed out for 1 hour a day (and there's no certainty that he's been able to have this yet.) The only window is being shaded to stop others looking in (which wouldn't be a problem if he was in a juvenile centre.) His mother is elsewhere in the jail on related manslaughter charges, but prison rules prevent them visiting each other.

The thoughts of the prosecutor? "If I were the parents of a kid charged with petty theft, I would be outraged if someone charged with first-degree murder were there right beside them"

There just doesn't seem to be ant thought for the care of this particular child. Obviously I don't know much about the case itself, but given his background it likely that he carries a degree of emotional damage. I can't believe that a civilised society is prepared to treat its children like this - but then Florida does have a bit of a track record in this. Hopefully by raising this internationally the Florida prosecutors will reconsider - somehow I very much doubt it.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Why minimum alcohol pricing was - and still is - a bad idea

Willie Rennie has today said that he is going to seek support of the party for minimum alcohol pricing. Now, I know Willie has supported this for a number of years, and normally he gets these things right, but this time I have to disagree.

There's a number of reasons why I'm opposed. Firstly, will it actually work? Take the middle-class alcoholic (though he'd not admit it) for whom a whisky or glass of wine after work has become a "crutch", as Tony Blair once put it. Will a price rise affect him? Most likely not – he'll either already buy products above the price limit anyway, or will simply absorb it into his monthly spending.

What about the real, hardened addicted drinkers at the other end of the social scale? History suggests that when the price of drugs go up, it doesn't actually force addicts to turn round and question what they're spending the money on. Instead, they take it from their other expenditures, the addiction forcing them to find a way of getting alcohol. So that means maybe that the kids get one meal a day instead of two, or that their new school uniform is forgone in place of a few bottles of White Lightning. Without support, and without being able to admit suffering, these people will simply become worse off again under this proposal.

And that's the crux. An increase in duty, or a tax otherwise implemented by Westminster, could be allocated to direct help for alcohol problems. That I would support. But instead, the increased profits from the sale of alcohol won't go to help those who suffer from its effect – it will go straight into the profits of the drinks companies and their shareholders' dividends.

In his article on Liberal Democrat Voice, he does make a good point that there is already much legislation in place which needs to be better enforced. So why not do this first? What is it about the legislation around test sales which allows big companies' lawyers to wriggle their clients out of a suspension or withdrawal of licence? Why not spend some time sorting this out and trying what we've got?

If this policy is to be implemented, then there needs to be a discussion with the drinks companies on the excess profits which will be produced. If there's a way, even through a voluntary agreement, whereby the extra profit raised can be used by the Scottish Government for a clear plan to combat alcohol abuse, then I might be able to support this. Without this, though, we will end up in the situation where responsible drinkers are penalised unfairly and problem drinkers don't get the support they badly need because it can't be afforded.