Prisoners of Thought

Yesterday a leaked memo from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith suggested that the economic gloom likely in the next few years will lead to an increase in the number of crimes, especially "acquisitive crimes". There would also be a "significant" rise in alcohol and tobacco smuggling (I wonder why). Pressed for an explanation, minister Tony McNulty described the relationship between crime and the economy as "blindingly obvious". Which, in a sense, it is. Unfortunately, government crime strategy and PR (they amount to much the same thing) have long been dependent on denying any such link, claiming instead that any fall in the crime-rate is caused by the success of the government's legislation.

For some years now, it has been the usual reaction of any government minister challenged over some high-profile crime fear (this year it has mostly been knife attacks) to parrot the mantra that crime has fallen during New Labour's years in office. Which it has, according to official statistics: but then it was also falling during the last few years of Conservative government too. Over this fifteen year period, a particular approach to criminal justice has been predominant, beginning when Michael Howard was Home Secretary but strongly intensified under New Labour. Basically, the technique has been threefold

1) Build more prisons and lock more people up
2) Pass more laws and
3) Set centrally-defined targets, and make everything accountable to the Home Office

Has it worked? In terms of sheer numbers of convictions, yes. In terms of the number of prisoners, most definitely: Britain now has the highest proportion of its population behind bars of any country in Europe. Way to go, Britain (still some distance behind the US, though). In terms of public confidence and satisfaction, though, it's hard to see much improvement. Even when it is pointed out that the crime rate has fallen, the public is seldom convinced. People don't feel safer; and given that the number of violent crimes have not decreased, that's hardly surprising.

As a report today (pdf) from the Reform think-tank demonstrates, over the past decade or so the government's "get tough" policies have led to an unprecedented politicisation of the criminal justice system. Which might not matter so much if it were effective. But while in Britain these policies have indeed coincided with a general fall in reported crime, international comparisons indicate the crime has fallen in all countries during the same period. If longer sentences and more prisons reduced crime, then crime should have remained steady or even increased in places where the prison population is lower. The truth, however, seems to be that crime has fallen in all major industrialised countries, regardless of the criminal justice policies being pursued by the government.

If this is even slightly the case, then Jacqui Smith's leaked memo is extremely worrying. For the population of prisons has increased tremendously: by more than 30% since 1995. In the 1980s, by contrast, when crime was rising, the prison population was fairly stable. There are several reasons for this: tougher sentencing, though, was by far the most significant, itself the outcome of government guidelines. The increase in prison capacity plays an intriguing role here: the more prison places available, the more the courts are likely to impose custodial sentences, partly just to fill them up and partly because building prisons sends the signal that prison is the preferred sentencing option. But this, in turn, means that there are shortages in the number of available places, which means more prisons, which means more custodial sentences. All this is extremely expensive, and has little or no effect on the rate of reoffending.

Logically, a period of falling crime should be accompanied by a decrease in the number of prisoners. Prisons should be mothballed, or rented out as conference venues, as the country cashes in its low-crime dividend, and the money saved spent on other things (such as improving police performance). Then, when economic conditions prompted an increase in the number of serious crimes, the system would have enough spare capacity to cope. What has happened, instead, is that the government (partly under pressure from the media, which has a vested interest in stoking public fears, and partly to place itself in loco parentis to the whole population) has pursued tough-line policies appropriate to an era of rising crime.

Apart from the vast cost involved, it has proved counterproductive. While politicians might claim to be satisfying public demands, the public itself doesn't seem to have been convinced by all this activity that crime is actually falling. And why should they? The constant talk of crackdowns and getting tough is more likely in increase the public's consciousness of crime than reassure them; and, intuitively, people might ask well themselves why the government is spending so much taxpayers' money building prisons if crime is actually falling.

But the real trouble will come later, if crime really does rise (as surely it will) in a time of economic dislocation. How will a criminal justice system designed for relatively benign circumstances - and even then bursting at the seams - begin to cope? Easy, you might think: build more prisons, set more police arrest targets, hire more people. But these strategies cost money, taxpayers' money; and if there's anything close to an iron law of economics it's that in a recession tax revenues go down. So where will the money come from? Hospitals? Schools? Pensions? The sort of things that hit voters in their pockets and in their daily lives considerably more than crime does? Hard to see that being popular - especially since the government (whoever they are) won't be able any longer to point to a falling crime rate as "proof" that their policies are working.


jack ralph said…
surely if you make stuff illegal the crime rate goes up, and if you legalise prviously illegal behaviour the crime rate automatically goes down.

by increasing the number of laws you increase the number of criminals meaning you're increasing the crime rate, thus disguising any fall in crime before you've even started.

when will they ever learn, eh?

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