11:27, December 18 216 0 theguardian.com

2018-12-18 11:27:05
Jailing J Hus for possessing a knife won’t solve the problem

In June, the musician J Hus was arrested for possessing a knife. He has now been given an eight-month prison sentence, much to the disappointment of many of his fans. I share the frustration in this sentencing decision – apart from the fact that locking people up in often overcrowded, understaffed prisons ought not to be a cause for celebration, such penal measures often fail to acknowledge the context of the crime and therefore fail to resolve it in the longer term.

J Hus’s trajectory has been at once triumphant and tumultuous. On one hand he has pioneered an authentic, distinctive and eclectic sound. But despite deservedly rocketing to stardom and releasing an era-defining album Common Sense, covetable earnings, chart success and accolades such as Brit and Mercury award nominations are starkly contrasted by moments of misfortune. He has six previous convictions, and was stabbed five times in 2015. More recently, his friend was stabbed and consequently paralysed this year – it was just six days afterwards that J Hus was caught carrying the weapon for which he has been imprisoned.

When a person endures such trauma, both acute and cumulative, physical and psychological, direct and vicarious, it is understandable if self-preservation leads them to take measures for protection. Carrying weapons is an inadvisable means of achieving such security and is clearly not to be condoned; I know first-hand the dire consequences such actions can have for all implicated parties.

Yet the unfortunate reality with which we’re forced to contend is that this option is preferable and more reliable to some than calling the police, for example, who have historically tended to lean towards criminalising rather than protecting those from marginalised demographics, and whose response time in any case wouldn’t be enough to stop any attackers. It’s the sad truth that some of those who carry weapons have assessed risk and concluded that the prospect of being caught with, say, a knife by law enforcement is preferable to being caught without one by someone seeking to cause harm. This feeling of being unsafe and under threat is a reality for many young people. It can only be magnified by celebrity, and being in jail where violence is concentrated, leaving one feeling like an overexposed target.

So if there are people who feel compelled to carry weapons around for complex reasons such as experiencing trauma, what exactly is achieved by locking them up? At best it seems an ineffective, temporary confinement of the problem. The likelihood, though, is that this approach actually exacerbates things.

In J Hus’s case, his arrest led to him initially being denied bail, his song Dark Vader being removed from radio playlists and him no longer being able to perform at TRNSMT and Wireless festivals. This seems only to inhibit his legitimate earning potential and slow or potentially ruin his career.

J Hus’s unfortunate experiences and demonstrable talent should have led to a custodial sentence being avoided. Though some may feign disapproval of the suggestion that the backgrounds and positioning of defendants should influence judicial outcomes, this is actually not unprecedented. A perfectly objective legal system exists only in theory; in reality, the outcomes of many cases are influenced by attributes such as class and race, even if subconsciously. For example, a judge cited “extraordinary” ability, extenuating mental health/substance misuse struggles, and significant remorse as reasons not to jail the Oxford student Lavinia Woodward after she grievously stabbed her boyfriend.

By contrast, despite the fact that J Hus possessed a weapon rather than actually wounding someone with intent, suffers from PTSD as corroborated by clinicians, and has profusely apologised, the judge in his case concluded it was her duty to jail him. But how useful and just are such performative “duties” when they actually fail to resolve underlying problems and can worsen matters in the grand scheme? The empathy afforded to Woodward should be extended to individuals such as J Hus who also have mitigating factors.

The judge’s assertion that J Hus “failed” to leave behind his past lacks nuance; this case illustrates and I know from having worked with young people that reformation, rehabilitation and surmounting disadvantage are not linear or immediate processes. We must work with those at risk of offending, acknowledging their unique situations, supporting their talents and diverting them towards their strengths, rather than compounding their trauma by imprisoning them and further excluding them from labour markets. In the longer term, eliminating factors such as the unequal distribution of opportunity will only turbo charge the environment in which violence thrives.

Franklyn Addo is a youth worker, journalist and rapper


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