26 APRIL 1975, Page 28

Crime and consequences

Getting through

Lain Scarlet

Somebody told me the other day that penal reformers and publishers who put out "that kind of esoteric stuff" have a similar image: "They're probably quite nice people, a bit soft in the head perhaps, but otherwise quite harmless."

As, by inclination, I'm something of a would-be penal reformer myself; and as, by trade, I'm largely beholden to publishers who put out "that kind of esoteric stuff," I was inclined to resent the remark. On second thoughts, however, I began to get the message. Like most people who write for a living gauge the value of a book by the number of people who can be persuaded to buy it, read it and think about it to the point of actually being affected by it.

Thus for years I've been waiting for a penal reformer and a publisher to get together to produce a real humdinger. A book that says not only what needs to be said but says it in language that can be appreciated and absorbed by everybody from the nipple-counting Sun reader to the letter-writing Times subscriber. A book that will be bought by the hundreds of thousands and read (when Public Lending Right comes into effect) by the millions. A book that will so effect public opinion that somebody in the Home Office prison department will actually have to start doing something.

In other words the sort of book I've been waiting for is a crime-and-consequences version of Honest to God. And if there was one chap I thought could produce it (apart from myself, that is), it was Louis Blom-Cooper.

So when last year I heard tell that he was editing a book of essays I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. And when a typescript of one of the essays was leaked to me I got so carried away by enthusiasm that I ended up splitting a splendid bottle with the essayist himself, Sir Brian (Mr Justice) MacKenna. Now it's only fair to say that my enthusiasm stemmed not from the quality of my host's literary effort: his prose was pretty turgid and he hadn't said anything new.

But what he had written, and signed, and offered for publication, had never been put on the record by a practising judge.

This, thought I, augurs well for the Blom-Cooper book and the cause near to my heart. And such was my delight that it was only two days later that I realised that however much his lordship's thoughts on the practice of sentencing and sentencers might appeal to me, and possibly even to

the letter-writing Times subscribers, they simply weren't going to get through to the nipple-counting Sun supporters.

So reaction set in. And publication last month of Progress in Penal Reform (Clarendon Press £4.50) did absolutely nothing to reassure me. Like a Soho punter in a dirty mac I have had to learn yet again that the fact is never what the fantasy was cracked up to be.

Now none of this is to say that Louis Blom-Cooper and his fellow essayists haven't produced a considerable book. But like so many other books on the subject it is directed at students and will end up preaching only to the already converted.

And to my mind that is yet another wasted opportunity.

Worse than that, it is yet another example of the kind of incest which demands that penal reformer shall speak only to penal reformer. And on a highly intellectual level at that.

It's simply not good enough, Louis. And it won't come good enough until you, or someone like you, gets hold of your tome and translates into good, basic, trenchant and easy-to-read English the sort of stuff that can be read and absorbed by the Man in the Oxford Street Traffic Jam and freely discussed in the local pub.

For I honestly believe that the one thing the penal reform lobby needs more than anything else is the support ot the nipplecounters. After all, they have the weight of numbers. And when it eventually comes to the crunch it is their statistics that will prove vital.

Ian Scarlet conducts a weekly programme on crime, delinquency and related topics for Radio London.