4 September 2004

Rethinking crime and punishment

By Ian Sinclair

Currently, the two main political parties in this country are going head-to-head over who has the toughest policies on crime. In July, Tony Blair heralded "the end of the liberal, social consensus on law and order." Not to be outdone, Michael Howard responded by arguing rising crime "is the reality of Britain today". If elected, Howard promises to send "an unequivocal message to offenders - if you break the law you will be punished."

However, these tough policies are not based on any objective reality, but rather implemented in response to the general public's often irrational fear of crime - a fear which our political masters, along with a pliant mass media (more about this below), have created in the first place.

The authoritative British Crime Survey (BCS) consistently concludes, "people generally have a poor knowledge of crime levels and trends" and of the criminal justice system. This misperception is based upon two commonly held beliefs. Firstly, most of the public believe recorded crime is rising. However, crime has been falling across the western world, with the BCS showing the number of crimes has fallen by 17% since 1999. Secondly, the popular perception is that we are soft on crime, with the system weighted too far in favour of the criminal. The 2000 BCS found over 75% of respondents believed the courts treated young offenders too leniently.

However, the fact is this country is currently experiencing the most punitive period of criminal justice for decades. The latest official figures show that 111,600 people were sentenced to immediate custody last year - the highest figure for at least 75 years! The courts are finding roughly the same number of serious offenders guilty as they were ten years ago, but are dealing with them much more harshly. A 2003 report by the Prison Reform Trust, noted that between 1991 and 2001, magistrates tripled the proportion they sent to prison (from 5% to 16%) while in crown courts it rose from 46% to 64%. Currently, England and Wales has more prisoners serving life sentences than the rest of the European Union put together.

Society's love affair with imprisonment continues, even though it is clear locking up people, especially children, does not work. The reoffending rates for Young Offender Institutions are as high as 84%, with a six-month custodial sentence costing the taxpayer an average of £21,000. By comparison, alternative non-custodial options for a similar six month period cost as little as £6,000 and have markedly lower rates of reoffending. The journalist Johann Hari summarises: "The choice is not between 'tough' and 'soft' it is between effective and useless. 'Tough' policies… just don't work. It is not those of us who want rehabilitation who are betraying the mugged grannies and the burgled primary schools - it is the Howards and the Blunketts, who choose facile posturing over policies that actually work."

So why is there a gigantic chasm between the public perception of crime and punishment and the reality? Most commentators agree that the media play a significant role in the public's misperception of crime. Commissioning a review of the literature on public attitudes to crime in the UK, the organisation Rethinking Crime and Punishment concluded "the media misrepresents the levels of occurrence and the nature of criminal acts." Interestingly, the BCS found those who read tabloid newspapers tended to have a poorer knowledge of crime and criminal justice than others, with 43% of tabloid readers thinking the crime rate had increased a lot compared to 26% of broadsheet readers.

We need to revolutionise the way we think about crime and punishment. We need fresh policies - that actually work. Building more prisons is not the answer, because, to paraphrase Michael Howard, prison does not work. The Government needs to be pressured into introducing policies that tackle the root causes of crime - poverty, unemployment and social exclusion. During the 80s and 90s, while Britain experienced a dramatic rise in poverty and unemployment, countries like Germany and France pursued policies designed to redistribute wealth and protect vulnerable members of society. At the start of the 80s recorded crime was roughly the same in Britain and France (3.5 million), but by the end of the decade it had fallen to 3 million in France, but increased to 5.5 million in Britain.

As the public's primary source of information, the media must also change, improving the way it reports crime issues. Rather than simply focusing on sensational, violent crime, the media need to explore the wider, societal problems that lead people to commit crime in the first place.