Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Different Way of Looking at It

This Guardian op-ed frames the whole “incarcerate, don’t prevent, don’t enforce, let victims happen before you do anything” philosophy of our “law and order” crowd in a different structure, as an admission of a complete lack of hope for any social progress in the future, for Britain in this case, but certainly applicable to those claiming even solid conservatives are “soft on crime” here today as well. This is what has happened to this nation and its historical legacy, an abandonment of any sense of betterment and progress, a focus on prisons over schools, on fear and retribution over hope and confidence. I only see one serious candidate for president who might actually walk the walk of reversing that rather than just talking it, and that candidate isn’t in the lead anywhere. IOW, what this op-ed spells out about and for Britain could just as easily be said about us. (There is good news, though, about an interesting website that could prove helpful here, too, if anyone cared enough to fund it and get it started.)

Consider the disastrous message here. This proclaims the government doesn't expect any of its social programmes to have any good impact on crime. On the contrary, things will get worse. The 10,500 extra young men imprisoned in 2014 will be Labour's children, arrived in school in 1997. Young offenders will have been born under Labour and yet more not fewer of them will "need" to be locked away than under the Tories.

So much for Labour's improving schools, extended school activities, expanded youth services, the Yips (youth inclusion programme) designed to catch children at risk before they offend, or a score of other acronyms from Labour's neighbourhood programmes. All wasted, all dust? Of course not - but we will lock up ever more young men anyway. Martin Narey, former prisons chief, now head of Barnardo's, points out: "Fewer young people are offending and their offences are diminishing, but if you build prisons you fill them up."

Listen to ministers complain that crime has fallen by 40%, including violent crime, yet voters refuse to believe it. But who is to blame for that? Of course people think crime must be rising when prisons are bursting as never before. Labour has pumped up fear of crime. Magistrates responded by doubling their custody rate, judges by increasing average sentences from six to 27 months.
This week historians, led by David Cannadine, launched a brilliant - but sobering - history and policy website ( ,giving brief and pithy accounts of past social policies, their successes and failures. If politicians would only browse here, historians hope, they might learn from what has gone before and stop reinventing so many square wheels. They would boast less about "new" ideas and their own "successes" compared with the past.
Frankly, if ministers bothered to study their own departments' recent work it would be a good start. Visiting one minister the other day, just as he launched a vital new policy, neither he nor his special advisers had ever heard of a very expensive and highly successful pilot scheme his predecessor had just completed as he left. When government's own memory is goldfish short, what hope for deeper history?

Look at the website's paper, Historical myth-making in juvenile justice policy, by Abigail Wills. She exposes two contradictory myths: that there was a golden age of law and order; and that treatment of juveniles is now more enlightened. Blair launching Asbos talked of his father's day in the 30s and his own youth when "people behaved more respectfully to one another and we are trying to get back to that". It's bunk: think of teddy boys and razor gangs. We tolerate much less minor violence than we did, and we tolerate teenagers less.

As for "enlightened treatment", the paper finds it more severe now than at any time since the 1850s, locking up more young people for lesser offences. Approved schools and borstals belonged under local authorities, not in the prison system, and were no worse and maybe relatively better than our suicide-prone, overcrowded youth offender institutions: the head of the Youth Justice Board resigned recently in disgust, with 70% of its budget spent on imprisonment, leaving little for prevention or rehabilitation.
History itself reminds us why Labour politicians don't refer to history when it comes to law and order. They don't much care, in this game of positioning and posturing, of seeming not doing. Crime has fallen in an extraordinary way - not because of policy but probably because of the economy, since it has fallen across the west in countries that imprison many fewer than the UK, and in America that imprisons many more.

There is plentiful evidence of "what works" in preventing reoffending - and it's not more prison. But Labour has taken us backwards, feeding punitive sentiment instead of persuading by proving what works. Douglas Hurd cut the prison population in the higher-crime Thatcher era: Labour has hugely inflated it.

(h/t Real Cost of Prisons)

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