Breaking the status quo on crime

June 24, 2008 at 11:53 am | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Prison Reform | Leave a comment
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It’s rare when I find myself nodding enthusiastically to a George Monbiot column, but today’s piece on our bloody awful prisons policy is certainly one of ’em, restating the lunacy in our fetish for incarceration that I’ve been annoying people with for a while. But for all that’s agreeable in the article, it still retains those now-familiar flaws of making liberal arguments to a liberal audience without pausing to consider the response of the other side. Here’s the paragraph where this is most obvious:

So why, when the number of crimes – especially serious violent crimes – is falling, are both the government and the courts imposing longer sentences? Why does the UK consistently rank in the top two places for imprisonment in western Europe? Why, as this country becomes more peaceable, does it become more punitive?

Well, I’m no mind reader, but I suppose the answer the ‘hang em & flog em’ brigade would give is that our country is more peaceable because it is more punitive. They’d argue that those convicted of violent crime are locked up for longer than ever, and anyone who even thinks about committing violence might bear in mind the long sentence that awaits them. Therefore the sentences are prohibitive and our prisons are simply full of people who would do us harm. No great loss.

This line of argument is effective because those making it can maintain they are in the right no matter what the circumstances. If any kind of crime is on the rise, they can demand a crackdown, tougher sentences, more vigilant policing. If crime is declining they can argue that the status quo must be maintained or else risk anarchy. With the nation’s best-selling newspapers at their disposal, their ability to stick to the same argument whatever the facts – and often regardless of the facts – has been influential in maintaining this rotten status quo that has us incarcerating more than anyone else in Europe.

So whilst it’s fine for Monbiot to talk about how those with the greatest wealth have the greatest say in determining sentencing, this isn’t necessarily going to change anyone’s mind. Rather than speaking to us in our own special language, it would’ve been more effective to conclude that we need to break the consensus that crime is best solved by incarceration and repeat the belief that our current system won’t make us much safer in the long term. Unless we manage to disprove the arguments upon which the status quo is formed, we wouldn’t be surprised if this rotten policy endures for many governments to come.

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