Friday, 29 January 2010

Criminal Injustice

Election campaigns tend to be an opportunity for our political representatives to posture themselves as the toughest on crime – who can forget Blair’s 1997 pledge of “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. In practice New Labour were neither, but at least they started with lofty aspirations to attack the root of criminality; however this soon descended to “zero tolerance” when David Blunkett cherry picked a report on crime prevention from New York and applied one narrow aspect of it, without adopting the vast majority of the techniques used by the New Yorkers. This ‘zero tolerance’ approach was cheer led from the sidelines by the conservative press, which is to say, in essence all the press; a policy which flew the face of decades of research which have shown this approach has never worked.

Enter David Cameron into the fray, with a pledge to stop the government's early release scheme. This rash promise has led to the Conservatives proposing the reintroduction of prison ships, which when last used were described by the then Chief Inspector of Prisons as unfit for purpose. Cameron has condemned the government's early release scheme, citing that since Gordon Brown’s premiership 75,000 prisoners have been released early, with 1,500 offences being committed by inmates on early release. So, that is a massive 2%; clearly this is a political decision attacking the policy in general, to whip up support from the True Blues and the media.

The question our politicians should be seeking an answer to is; why are British prisons so full that we have to release prisoners early in the first place?

Britain has the largest prison population in Europe. About 70% of the detainees have two or more diagnosed mental disorders; about 60% have a reading age of less than that of a six year old and conservative estimates show at least a quarter of inmates are heroin addicts. New Labour has been obsessed during its tenure to criminalise British society, creating over 3,000 new offences with about half warranting a custodial sentence. When analysed many seem incredibly minor, with the Home Office’s zeal for sending people to jail for bad driving, petty crimes such as shop lifting, or as part of the ill conceived war on drugs.

The simple truth is that tens of thousands of prisoners in British jails just simply shouldn’t be there; in the Eighties the Conservative's inspired policy of ‘care’ in the community dumped thousands of severely mentally ill patients in small unsecured units, although in reality on the streets. Many now find themselves part of the prison population. Drug addicts should be rehabilitated, as this has been shown repeatedly, over and over again by countless studies to reduce crime and re-offending rates; New Labour’s response was to reduce the number of treatment centres in the UK. The prisons are too full to have effective education programmes to equip inmates with the skills necessary to be a worthwhile participant in society and then everyone throws their hands up in the air when the latest re-offender figures are released as though it is a mystery; then our intrepid political masters suggest being tougher or buying a couple of boats to solve the problem.

In British society an unvirtuous circle has evolved between politicians, the media and public opinion; which has taken us down a path where the best interests of our society are seldom served. It starts with a populist conservative sentiment based on ignorance and prejudice; the right-wing media then feeds on this sentiment, criticising the politicians for not immediately bowing down to it in the most reactionary way possible; the weak politicians then make policies to get applause from the press, and so we descend. Once when journalism was about reporting the truth, and politicians made their decisions based upon facts, public opinion could be changed and society improved. Capital punishment was abolished in the face of overwhelming public opposition, such a thing could not happen today, due to the debasement of our politics and press; maybe the Enlightenment has finally ended?

If petty criminals, the addicted and the insane were taken out of the prisons then those convicted of serious crimes could receive the punishments that they deserve and serve sentences that reflect the harm they have caused. The vast sums of money saved could be used to fund secure hospitals where the mentally ill could receive suitable treatment and drug rehabilitation centres could be built to help the helplessly addicted, as well as developing effective prevention programmes.

Our current justice system is a thing of deep collective shame, an indictment on our society where we lock up the deranged, the weak, and the feeble and offer them no realistic chance to redeem themselves after our retribution. We all feel good because justice has been seen to be done, we have reinforced our prejudiced opinion and the fact is we have not made society one jot safer.


  1. Hello Antony,

    Just thought I'd give some feedback: Another well thought out and well written blog - liked the bit about the weak press. I haven't agreed with all your blogs but this one is closely aligned to my views.

    Louis Stephen

  2. Another good read. Although Blair cited the phrase 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' it was actually first coined by Gordon Brown who allowed Blair to steal it so to speak! Bit of trivia there!