Guest Blogger: Lynn Harrison -
The Case of Laura Johnson
“Laura Johnson Faces Jail”
“A millionaire’s daughter who drove a gang of looters around London during the riots last August is facing a jail sentence, a judge has said”
Guardian April 5th 2012-04-06
On first impression this story appears to be one about class and indeed it has incited a media-fuelled debate around how a young woman from a privileged background came to be involved in the riots and what punishment is appropriate.
However, it emerges that Laura had a history of mental distress including self-harm and recent suicide attempts. It was whilst she was being treated at an inpatient unit that she began a relationship with someone who, came from a very different background with a history of drug-related and violent crime. It remains to be seen whether she willingly drove her boyfriend around South London whilst he and an accomplice looted Curry’s, Comet and a petrol station, at one point, it is alleged, even robbing other looters at knifepoint. Alternatively, this could be seen as a case of a vulnerable young woman, very depressed after the break –up of a long term relationship, falling for someone who manipulated her leading her to become involved in crime against her will. The jury didn’t believe that and Laura will be sentenced on May 3.
During a discussion via Facebook with other mental health survivors most agreed that, whatever the truth of this case, a custodial sentence is unlikely to be helpful for Laura.
Reading the many media articles about this case, the most shocking aspect for the journalists appears to be that a young person from a privileged background could be in this situation in the first place. However, for women (and men) generally having mental health problems and being involved in the criminal justice system is far from uncommon.
In 2010, Care Not Custody, a report produced by the WI as part of a campaign to highlight the plight of people with mental health diagnoses in the criminal justice system:
found that two-thirds of all prisoners had mental health problems of 4,300 women prisoners the incidence was, 4 out of 5.
Sadly, for Laura, as for many others, this could make things much worse with damaging consequences for mental health, little effect on reoffending and detrimental consequences on family life, relationships and future prospects. The WI campaign has been calling for an increase in community services for women and generally and improvements in mental health services as an alternative to prison along with improvements to mental health provision within the prison system and during offenders’ rehabilitation programmes.
The urgent need for improvements is also echoed by WISH (Women In Secure Hospitals) which states in its campaign Why Gender Matters:
“The treatment and care of women with mental health needs in hospital, prison and the community is being severely compromised by the widening gulf between policy and practice, and the lack of joined-up thinking between the Mental Health and Criminal Justice Systems. Despite extensive recommendations to move away from ‘one size fits all’ provision to address women’s diversity of need, women continue to report feeling vulnerable within a system that is inadequate at best, and abusive at worst. There is both a financial and human cost to the current situation. Women are falling through the gaps between systems and those with the highest support needs are dropped from statutory mechanisms when they are unable to engage with services.”
Of course, there are many questions still to be answered about the causes of the riots themselves, but, in this instance, if society wishes to focus on positive outcomes, can locking up troubled individuals like Laura, whatever background they may come from, be the right answer?