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A crime against the Olympic spirit

The creation of fast-track courts to deal with ‘Olympic offences’ sums up British officials’ miserabilism.

Luke Gittos

Luke Gittos
Columnist

Topics Politics

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Last week the Crown Prosecution Service announced plans to introduce a fast-track courts system for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Our prosecuting authorities seem keen to get into the swing of the competition by bragging about their ability to have Olympics-related crimes dealt with quickly. Alison Saunders, the chief prosecutor for London, said: ‘Many people who come to the Olympics won’t live here, so it is important that if offences are committed, we act quickly. People who commit offences on Tuesday will be in court on Wednesday… We are learning the lessons of the summer riots [in England].’ The plans will be replicated in Dorset, where maritime Olympic events are to be held.

The police in Dorset have explicitly described how the streamlined criminal-justice system will target foreign nationals, who are more difficult to track if they abscond while on bail. The police clearly believe that the influx of foreigners into Britain for the Games is not something to get excited about, but rather an occasion for spreading fear about crime and encouraging everyone to hold their bags tight and keep their eyes on their bicycles.

What a way to embrace the Olympic spirit! There will even be a new category of offence created especially for the Games. Certain offences will be rebranded ‘Olympic offences’ if they are committed against or by a competitor, spectator or official, or if they are committed in an area associated with the Olympics. Once something is classified as an ‘Olympic offence’, it will be eligible to be rushed through the courts, which will be open for longer every day to cope with the increased traffic.

These plans come in the wake of a significant increase in Olympics-linked expenditure by London’s Metropolitan Police. No sooner had London won the Games than the Met had established Operation Podium, a specialist taskforce to deal with organised offending around the Games. There have been very few arrests under Operation Podium. Most of its investigations have focused on secondary ticket agents, those companies that buy bulk tickets for a wide range of cultural and sporting events and then resell them – something that has been happening for years without anyone batting an eyelid. Many of these agencies haven’t even sold any Olympics tickets, but have still become the targets of a police operation with little else to do.

It seems that the vast majority of people who have bought Olympics tickets may not be organised criminals after all, but, shock horror, people who want to go to the Olympics. If only semi-legal touting companies had managed to get more tickets – this could have helped lots of people in London who want to go to the Games but who can’t because of the debacle of officialdom’s allocation of ticket sales.

While all major events attract additional police attention, the panic-led fast-track prosecutions planned for the Games make no sense. Firstly, such a system is likely to be counterproductive. Cases normally take a long time to reach court because police need time to gather evidence and to assess what, if any, is an appropriate charge to bring. When cases are rushed, the police will feel forced to charge cases that they might otherwise just have dropped. The inevitable result is that cases will come before the court with insufficient evidence to secure a conviction.

Secondly, many offences may come before the court which would not otherwise have been considered in the ‘interests of justice’ to prosecute. With the police under financial pressure to secure some significant results in their drive against Olympics-related crime, even minor offences such as ticket touting, which would usually be dealt with by a slap on the wrist, will likely be blown out of proportion and hauled before the court.

But beyond the practical difficulties, there is a principled objection to be made against this initiative, too. The idea that criminal justice should ever be rushed is seriously authoritarian. The approach to criminal justice that we saw following the English summer riots, which is now being replicated for the Olympics, is symptomatic of a criminal-justice system that is gradually losing its foundation in due process. More and more, the goal of the justice system is not to secure a fair conviction, but to secure a punishment at any cost.

Consider the significant increase in the power of officials to issue on-the-spot fines for things such as littering and dog-fouling. The impulse driving the introduction of those kind of fast-track powers is the same that allows prosecuting authorities to suspend normal procedure in unusual circumstances. They are both rooted in the idea that the prosecutorial process, which requires the state thoroughly to prove its case against the accused, can be sidestepped for the purposes of getting to the punishment as quickly as possible.

There is no evidence that hosting the Olympic Games leads to an increase in crime – a fact partly acknowledged by Dorset police themselves. A spokesman said, ‘We are not expecting an increase in crime rates, based on our experiences of Sydney and Athens’. Crime actually fell in Barcelona during the 1992 Olympics, because there were more police on the streets. Only 850 crimes were reported in Barcelona. It is quite clear that London’s planned overhaul of the criminal-justice system, this temporary suspension of prosecutorial judgement, is based on little more than the borderline xenophobic quiverings of a panicked British state.

So while the police fast-track people into court, desperately keen to justify the extra millions being spent on policing the Games, the rest of us should resist officialdom’s invitation to be suspicious of the foreigners coming to visit. Instead let’s loudly welcome them to enjoy the greatest show on Earth.

Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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Topics Politics

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