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Judge ’em, cowboy

12 December 2014

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IT IS a rare thing indeed to hear the judiciary praised in terms more divine than human. In this country, it would be unthinkable to imagine a judge's being described as having a hotline to God - except in a deeply satirical sense. But such are the paeans lavished on Judge Francis from Dallas, Texas: a Justice who, dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, presides over an ex-offender programme with wildly successful results.

There is nothing touchy-feely about Judge Francis: a gun-toting Republican, he is one of a new breed of right-wingers in the United States who have embraced the politics of rehabilitation for ex-offenders - and the economics, as Danny Kruger discovered in Republican Rehab? (Radio 4, Monday of last week).

This new breed has "done the math" - the figures are much-quoted, and the predictions for the future growth of the US prison population are truly staggering - and they have realised that, from a purely financial perspective, the situation is unsustainable. Thus was born the lobby Right on Crime, and it is their recommendations on managing prisoner numbers which are credited with reducing the prison population by ten per cent in Texas.

Naturally, some Democrats feel miffed that their liberal clothes have been stolen; and it comes at a time when many Republicans are also starting to argue against death row. It is one of the ironies of the present situation in the US that prison numbers increased as a result of Democrat policies on mandatory minimum sentencing, forged directly to counter accusations of soft-pedalling.

But the person who might feel most aggrieved by this documentary is Kenneth Clarke, whose name was never mentioned when the discussion moved to the UK and whether rehabilitation might work over here. Instead, Mr Kruger turned to his old chum David Davis to imagine the apparently unimaginable: a Home Secretary who does not just lock doors and swallow keys.

If, after that, your moral and political compass is spinning, then I am afraid the next item will not help. Decameron Nights (Radio 3) is bringing us a daily serialisation of one of the most bawdy and irreverent works in the Western literary canon. Boccaccio's sequence of 100 tales contains the saucy, the sacrilegious, and the cynical, a body of stories that furnished inspiration to dozens of later authors, not least Chaucer.

These little plays are neatly packaged and deftly presented - though it is fair to say that Boccaccio has about the same sensitivity to gender politics as the average seaside postcard.

Even if there are no morals here, the stories do manage to deliver a closing moral of a kind. In particular, the story of Ciappelletto has more than enough to fill a decent sermon: a Florentine Tony Soprano on his death bed dupes the priest into thinking that he has lived a blameless life. The priest, painfully aware of the corruption around him, and keen to rise above it, uses the memory of the dead thug to chastise his peers. And so another delinquent finds his resting place within the walls of an abbey.

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