‘The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons’Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Recent announcements from the home secretary that this new government will be ‘tougher on crime’ through the media megaphone have had a particularly worrying tenor.
Unlike war waged against a tangible enemy, the arms race to be ‘tough on crime’ is not ending. There are chilling similarities to the Nixon and Reagan era ‘wars on drugs’- a choice of phrase that is semantically similar in that by waging war on a concept, there can be no clear end point to the ‘war’. Indeed, in recent history, we’ve had the ‘war on drugs’, the ‘war on terror’ and now the ‘war against Coronavirus’. With each of these examples, politicians and their subordinates parrot these catchphrases to the masses, using wartime rhetoric to justify myriad human rights abuses, erosions of civil liberties, and subjugations of legal due process.
‘Tough on crime’ rhetoric is used as a political weapon; a Texas governor once said, ‘no one ever lost an election by being too tough on crime’. But I wanted to delve a little deeper into what the consequences of such rhetoric are. I want to ask why and indeed who this might all be hurting? In recent years we have seen welfare being used as a stick with which to beat the poor, the most vulnerable, the most ignored, and the most forgotten. Picture this example, an all too frequent reality:
It’s Friday night at HMP Wandsworth.
It’s Friday night, which means a mentally ill drug addict is about to be released from their current sentence with £47.50. This amount is set by statute but is often not even enough to pay for a train ticket. Our released prisoner has never had a job and grew up in care without the familial support most take for granted. In prison he had no work, the closest he got was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and even then that was only when he was let out of his cell to attend them. A rarity.
Thanks to bureaucratic incompetence and one of the most malicious pieces of legislation ever drafted (perhaps dwarfed only by Chris Grayling’s proposed prisoner book ban), prisoners are unable to claim state benefits for several months.
Upon release from prison he is denied access to welfare for 2 months.
On that Friday night, he walks out into the world and looks for his next score. Within a few hours, he’s run out of money, but he is hungry. He walks into Sainsbury’s and pockets an all-day breakfast sandwich. He (shock horror) looked suspicious on entry and was followed by security. Within minutes he was arrested for shoplifting. Within hours he is back at HMP Wandsworth from whence he came earlier that day.
It will be numerous court hearings, police evidence meetings, witness-callings, and legal-aid costs before he is sentenced again to spend the next several years in prison. Now, thanks to changes in the 2000s, previous convictions and prison records can now be introduced as evidence for the prosecution. This legislation was passed in response to victims’ movements in cases were sexual offences were committed. Quantitative studies on such cases indicate conclusively that sex offenders are more likely to offend again than any other offender. Given the especially heinous nature of such crimes, and the statistical likelihood of recidivism, perhaps it is palatable to allow previous convictions into evidence at trial.
But the government of the day chose a blunt instrument and instead co-opted these victims’ movements to allow previous convictions into all trials regardless of severity. This turns the presumption of innocence on its head. The mass inclusion of previous offences makes it more likely than not that the jury will be influenced. Try telling a jury that a man with two previous petty shoplifting convictions is innocent until proven guilty.
But back to our story.
Our released prisoner will likely spend several more years in HMP Wandsworth. For him, this is easier than being on the streets. For him, removal from society is (perversely, you might say) less painful than being forced to live in it. That is, in a society that has consistently forgotten and alienated him.
David Hume wrote that empathy is the glue which holds society together. Much of that sentiment rings true today. And we need it more than ever.
So, the next time you read a ‘tough on crime’ soundbite in the Evening Standard, or you hear of a new Bill promising to lock more people up for longer, consider the effects of such policy: increased reoffending rates, more and more people becoming trapped in the cycle of offending. The reoffending rate in the UK over the last decade has steadily held above 40%. In Norway and Sweden, the average is half that. Rather than attacking crime at the symptom, we need a joined-up and holistic public health approach to find a solution to the root cause of the problem.
The case of Glasgow shows us that we already have a model of a better approach to treating crime and how effective it can be. Since ex-police officer John Carnochan reframed violent crime as a public health issue in the early 2000s, Glasgow has moved from having one of the highest murder rates in Europe to a half of that.
So, next time you hear a politician promising to be ‘tough on crime’, remember this approach is ultimately to the detriment of the most marginalised, as well as society as a whole.
By Will Marsden