Saturday, November 10, 2007

Politics of Law and Order in UK

‘A society should not be judged on how it treats its outstanding citizens but how it treats its criminals’ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Polls show that concern with crime is close to the top of voter priorities and has remained so over the last two to three decades. This note takes a look at ‘crime waves’, causes of crime, penal policy and alternatives. It draws on material from my chapter 25 in Politics UK but includes more up to date material as well.

The ‘Crime Wave’: Virtually everyone believes crime is on the increase and that we live in the middle of a perpetual ‘crime wave’. Everyone too has ideas upon why criminals are formed and how they should be treated. We also look back to a ‘golden age’ when we could leave our doors unlocked at night and walk the streets at any time unmolested and without fear. In 1979 the number of serious recorded crimes was about 21/2 million; a decade later it was closer to 5 million when most people would have agreed a ‘crime wave’ was in progress.

Political Party Attitudes: Conservatives tended to blame the permissive sixties for the collapse of values, and behaviour leading to crime: respect for authority had been undermined by the ‘anything goes’ attitudes of that decade and so crime had rocketed. They pointed to the thirties, for comparisons when desperate social conditions had not resulted in increased crime rates. Labour tended to see crime as the consequence of hardship and poverty: if these were removed, they argued, criminals would have no need to commit crimes. Tories argued increased crime could be remedied by ever tougher penalties; Labour argued such reactions merely made the situation worse.

This analysis remained gridlocked in its respective certainties for several decades after the war but around the early nineties policies began to converge. The Conservatives admitted that economic depressions caused increased crime (see also Polly Toynbee’s article quoted below), while Labour, insisting, under its Home office spokesperson, one Tony Blair, that the ‘causes of crime’ should be robustly addressed, as well as its consequences. From here on in-now convinced there were no votes in the liberal approach- parties vied with each other as to which could be the toughest.

Measuring ‘Crime Waves’: criminologists point out that crime statistics are something of a mine-field:

i) More people now report burglaries because more people have home insurance and telephones.
ii) Many crimes are very trivial and may not even have been recorded until quite recently.
iii) Britain used to be much more violent in past centuries. EG Dunning’s work in 1987 calculated that the murder rate in the 13th century was seventeen times today’s rate. The idea of a bygone ‘golden age’ when we were a peaceful country is a myth, though there have been fluctuations of course.
iv) The huge increase in police manpower has enabled more crimes to be registered.
v) Media coverage of crime- often sensationalist- masks the fact that the chances of being mugged in our country are less than once every five centuries and the chances of injury from assault less than once every century. UK is safer than Germany, USA or Australia.

Clear up Rates: when crime rates were relatively low, say under 3 million a year serious crimes, the clear-up rate for them was 40%; not perfect but a tribute of sorts to a police force overstretched and weighed down by bureaucratic requirements. By 1999 the figure had slumped to 25%. Since then Labour has claimed some improvements but their lack of specificity suggests they are only marginal.

Fear of Crime: this is a major problem and I return to it below. When old people are frightened to go out at night and young people are regular targets for violent crime, the streets become even more the property of the criminals. Most people wrongly (see below) believe crime to be increasing and have little confidence in the police. Particularly afflicted are residents of inner city areas which suffer over twice as much from burglary as any other kind of area: much of crime involves working class people offending against their own.

Causes of Crime

Gap between rich and poor: countries with low gaps between rich and poor suffer less overall from crime- e.g. Japan, Denmark, Sweden- than countries with large gaps like UK and USA. People with very little look out on a world where people are judged often by how they look and what they have; if the road to success by conventional means proves too difficult, crime can be considered as an option.

More crimes on statute book: Blair’s governments placed many more offences on the books so offending is now easier to do as so many more things have been classed as crime. More material goods in the shops also act as incentives to crime.
Professor Mike Hough, of King's College London, was quoted recently in The Guardian:

"In Victorian and Edwardian times, in the 1920s and 30s, a far higher general level of violence was accepted. Now people report quite minor incidents that would have been ignored."

Young people face more challenges: most crimes are committed by young people aged 16-24 and this often gives rise to ‘generational’ disputes: older people blame the youngsters while the former vent their anger on their parents’ generation.
a) more are the product of broken homes and fragmented families
b) long term unemployment has taken away the hope which earlier generations came to expect as of right and reduced the number of ‘working’ role model males as heads of families.
c) When unemployed crime can assume an excitement and glamour which makes it attractive.

Growth of an underclass: partly as a result of the above factors a stratum of society has emerged comprising poverty stricken older people and younger ones dependent on benefits where the dividing line between legality and illegality is harder to distinguish and where a culture has emerged disdainful of the values underpinning a cohesive society.

Drugs and Crime: the Home Office calculates that two thirds of property crime is drugs related. A heroin addict has to raise some £15K annually to survive but seldom is in work so crime becomes the obvious route to finance the habit. Police seizures of drugs amount to a mere 20% of the total involved.

Anti-Social Behaviour: this causes a huge amount of resentment- vandalism, graffiti, casual violence, gangs of youths the worse for drink appearing to intimidate ordinary people. When beer is available in supermarkets at prices less than mineral water, it is scarcely surprising that so many young people misbehave- the older generation testify that alcohol was relatively much more expensive when they were teenagers. Having substantially relaxed opening hours moreover, has not contributed much of a restraining effect on drinkers to desist from their binges.

Polly Toynbee and the Economic Connection: Toynbee is often pilloried for holding stereotypical Guardian views but her research is always well founded:

‘Trends in Crime and their Interpretation, by the Home Office in 1988, plotted crime figures in the last century against the economic cycles, with graphs tracking crime against boom and bust. Its evidence is conclusive: in good times when per capita consumption rises with higher employment, property crime falls. When people have money their need is less great so burglary and theft trends drop. However, theft rises as soon as consumption falls when the economy dips and people on the margins fall out of work. But that is not the whole picture. Something else happens in good times. People have more money in their pockets, they go out more and their consumption of alcohol rises. The result? They hit each other more and personal violence figures rise. Exactly this is happening now with near full-employment and soaring drink consumption creating a rise in assaults, mainly young men hitting each other at night (mainly not very hard: only 14% visited a doctor afterwards).’(12/7/2002)

Responses to Crime

The Police: Billions of pounds have been spent on expending police numbers over past decades. During the eighties rightwing commentators lambasted the police for failing; Blair’s New Labour responded by piling in with even more funding to bring the number of police over 130,000. However, Robert Reiner, the leading LSE criminologist, argues that the ‘golden age of policing’ in the 40s and 50s was largely a myth. He believes crime was controlled by:

‘informal social controls, above all by the gradual inclusion of the whole population into common citizenship. However, the police took much of the credit… Much research evidence shows that policing had little effect on levels of offending’.
Reiner saw rocketing crime rates as the consequence of neo-liberalism, unemployment, inequality, poverty plus ‘an egoistic consumer culture and declining deference’.

Prison: to advocates of tough law and order approaches, prison is their chief instrument. Depriving someone of their liberty widely thought to be a major deterrent and, given the nature of other inmates prison is indeed a very punitive consequence of being convicted of a criminal offence. When crimes increase or when particular crimes receive publicity, there are calls for heavier sentences- especially from the zealots who attend Conservative Party conferences. However, prison is not regarded by many criminologists as effective in either deterring future transgressions or rehabilitating offenders so that they can ‘rejoin’ society. 60% of offenders re-offend within two years and it is clear young men who graduate from young offenders’ institutions to prison merely emerge as more hardened criminals.

On 23rd February 1993 The Observer published the story of ‘Dennis’ who began his ‘career’ in an approved school aged 12. It was here he imbibed the ‘criminal subculture’; by 15 he was arrested for stealing a car and went to a Detention Centre where ‘the kids were already seeing themselves as gangsters’. Inevitably he graduated to burglary criminal damage and car theft and soon was in Strangeways, doing time. After another stretch he married and worked for while but then drugs, marriage break up and loss of his job led him back into crime, this time armed robbery. His story, unusually, ends happily in that prison education led him into a different world where he discovered his real self and was able to leave the criminal worlds behind him to study law at Bristol University. But ‘Dennis’ is only one out of thousands who fail to haul themselves out of the trough of criminality and waste their lives rotting in prison.

Britain imprisons more extensively with custodial sentences than any other country in Europe and only USA and South Africa imprison more. In the eighties it was clear that a system designed to accommodate 40,000 was having to cram 55,000 two and three to a cell. During the nineties the Conservatives opted for more non custodial sentences but Michael Howard broke with this trend with his ‘prison works’ policy, which saw prison populations grow relentlessly toward 70,000 and above. Private prisons took up some of the slack once riots in the 80s highlighted appalling conditions but at the present time there are 81,000 inmates and no sign of any let up. Writing in The Guardian, the doyen of columnists Simon Jenkins argues in his article, ‘Britain’s prisons reek of a wretchedly backward nation’:

‘The chief concern of the public, always cited by politicians, is violent or sexual offending. But there are only 18,000 such convicts in prison. Meanwhile, the Home Office reports that 55% of the jail population is related in whole or part to the failure of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Reforming this act along lines familiar elsewhere in Europe holds the key to reducing the prison population, yet ministers are terrified of "the press". Nor are the Tories any better. Their crime spokesman, David Davis, always refers to crime as "violent" and seems ashamed that Blair locks up 30% more criminals than did the Tories.
Young people whose discipline in other countries is a prime charge on schools, churches, sports clubs and communal authority, are in Britain left to the police. Yet the police answer not to any community, but to Whitehall statistical targets and the ministerial demand for good headlines. Crime in Britain has thus shifted conceptually from being an issue of social reform to being one of repression, and the figures show it’ .20/6/07.
Critics of the government’s penal policy do not just attack it on the grounds of its inhumanity, lack of rehabilitation and its sheer inefficiency, they also attack rising numbers when crime is in fact in decline. This is an extraordinarily difficult message to get across to voters, but serious crime has actually fallen by 40% since 1997. As Polly Toynbee argues, maybe this has something to do with the media.
Media and Crime
Polly Toynbee made a swingeing attack on the media’ coverage of crime in a recent article: 23rd October 2007. Pointing out at crime has ‘plunged’ by more than 40% over the last decade she surveys how the media insist on ignoring the good news and focusing only on the scary crimes for which the public has an obsessive horrified fascination . The most recent figures revealed a 7% decrease with serious violence down by 14%, lesser violence 12% and sex offences 7%. These figures are based, official police recorded figures but the British Crime Survey, published at the same time and based on interviews with 40,000 people, suggests crime is stable- neither up nor down. Yet these figures confirm the 40% fall, with a 59% decline in burglary, 61% vehicle theft and 45% personal theft.
Yet we Brits are more frightened of crime than anywhere in the west: 83% think crime is actually rising.
Ipsos Mori's Ben Page has no compunction in saying: "We're obsessed with crime and the media is to blame." He finds 57% say they think crime is rising because they see it on television, 48% because they read it in newspapers.
Fear of crime, stoked up by the media explains why we spend more on crime than any other nation in the world. This makes it prime target for political parties, seeking to win advantage by amplifying scares over crime- David Cameron, of course, has recently spoken of a ‘broken society’. With both main parties likely to be locked in a ‘boat race’ of poll ratings up to the next election, we can expect only more of the same.


Blogger Newmania said...

Polly Toynbee and the Economic Connection: Toynbee is often pilloried for holding stereotypical Guardian views but her research is always well founded:

Oh don1`t be ridiculous . the people who she quotes are only fellow memebrs of her constituency. they do surveys and she claims imp\rtikla evidence . brown has it to a fine art and that load of rubbish is ceasing to hold any water as the mountianof anecdota evidenc and persoanl experience weighs against it .

it is perfectly possible to say soemthing stitically true and yet ne lying and that is what she does

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Blogger Newmania said...

Polly Toynbee and the Economic Connection: Toynbee is often pilloried for holding stereotypical Guardian views but her research is always well founded:

Oh don1`t be ridiculous . the people who she quotes are only fellow memebrs of her constituency. they do surveys and she claims imp\rtikla evidence . brown has it to a fine art and that load of rubbish is ceasing to hold any water as the mountianof anecdota evidenc and persoanl experience weighs against it .

it is perfectly possible to say soemthing stitically true and yet ne lying and that is what she does

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