In praise of Alan Duncan

January 24, 2010 at 11:13 am | Posted in Conservative Party, Crime | 7 Comments

I have no idea yet whether Alan Duncan is an asset or a liability to the cause of penal reform, but he certainly appears to be an ally, and is the author of two cracking soundbites:

Ms Crook wrote: ‘Alan Duncan said that the slogan “prison works” was repulsively simplistic. Anyone in politics should work to improve society and there was no more useful target than offenders.’


Ms Crook added: ‘He said, “Lock ’em up is Key Stage 1 politics.”’ Key Stage 1 is the first part of the primary-school curriculum studied by children as young as five.

To which the Mail has helpfully editorialised:

Suggesting that an old-style tough Tory approach to crime is worthy of a five-year-old will infuriate the party’s grassroots activists.

Well, if they’re going to act like five-year-olds…

Regardless of the bruised feelings the ‘lock ’em up’ brigade will have today, Duncan is entirely correct. What’s more, it is reassuring to see that there are figures inside the Tory hierarchy who are prepared to defend their policy on prisons from the punative populism apparently favoured by David Cameron’s inner circle.

The spat within the front bench over the ‘prison ships’ proposal gives further evidence of something I’ve mentioned before. For quite some time now, it’s been apparent that there exists a real tension & contradiction in Tory justice policy, and one which will need to be resolved if the party takes power.

On the one hand there is the thoughtless, tabloid-fawning opportunism practiced by the likes of Chris Grayling. Under this ‘Key Stage 1 politics’, there is no sentence too punative, no cure but incarceration, and the only area where the conservatives would envisage more state spending is in the building of more prisons.

These are contradicted by a policy for prison reform which is, by and large, excellent. Their ‘Prisons with a Purpose’ paper, influenced heavily by outside experts and the fine work done by the Centre for Social Justice, is a thoughtful, well-informed engagement with the problem which rightly concludes that the purpose of the prison system should be reformation rather than revenge.

These conflicting instincts in Tory policy cannot coexist with each other in government because being progressive on prison reform will require restraint on sentencing which the would-be Home Secretary seems incapable of practicing. Even if he did, he would have to restrain not just his own instincts, but the reflexive vengefulness of the Tory tabloids and grassroots.

Sadly, I don’t hold out much hope that this conflict will be settled on the side of reform, but I may always be proved wrong. Until I am, Alan Duncan deserves praise for standing on the right side of an unpopular and perpetually losing battle.

Goldsmith forgets to think

January 21, 2010 at 9:44 pm | Posted in Conservative Party, Crime | Leave a comment

If you thought the Tories’ ‘broken society’ meme was bit dystopic, this will really have you reaching for the bottle. According to Zac Goldsmith, Conservative candidate for Richmond Park and everyone’s favourite uber-green non-dom, we’re no longer living in a civilised country. Can’t wait to see that on his election posters.

In a post which implicitly supports euthanasia, Goldsmith contrasts the seemingly lenient sentence given to a convicted paedophile with a seemingly harsh sentence for a woman who ended the life of her beloved but brain damaged son.

The problem, you see, is those pesky “sanctimonious liberal commentators” who “will argue that the mark of a civilised society is its willingness to apply justice in the face of public opinion. For them, this mother is a law-breaker, just like Sweeney, and she should be punished as such.

Now, if I was going to write about how two court cases reveal what an uncivilised country we are, I’d probably think twice before accusing anyone else of sanctimony. I think I’d also take the time to ponder what a liberal commentator’s reaction to these two stories would actually be.

You see, liberals are found of liberalising things, and last time I checked, the criminal justice system hasn’t seen all that much liberalising in the past few decades. Indeed, there are quite a few ‘sanctimonious liberals’ who would go so far as to say that there shouldn’t be a custodial sentence for mercy killings, providing certain conditions are met. So under a more liberal system, the mercy killing escapes jail and the paedophile is still banged up. Am I missing something here, or is that not exactly what Zac Goldsmith is angling for?!

Seriously, I can understand why some folks have a reflexive urge to bash their opponents at any opportunity; it’s just a shame that this one couldn’t engage his brain before doing so.

Gang culture, territory & fear

July 20, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime | 6 Comments

Nothing brings Britain’s social problems into focus like seeing them on your doorstep. What might seem abstract when described in Home Office documents or reported from unfamiliar places becomes a lot more intimate when it’s set somewhere you know: full of landmarks you’ve visited, people you might’ve met, folks who speak with the same accent or walk the same streets as you.

So when I read Mark Townsend’s report on the rise of gun & gang culture around the Burngreave & Pitsmoor areas of Sheffield, I was always going to react to it differently than if it’d been set in somewhere like Manchester, Liverpool or the North East. I can’t claim to know these neighbourhoods intimately, but my emotional attachment to the city means I probably can’t react as impartially or dispassionately as I would if it were set somewhere else.

But whilst responding emotionally to problems which need rational policy solutions isn’t always helpful, it’s also often unavoidable. Watching YouTube videos made by members of the various ‘postcode gangs’ can be a thoroughly depressing experience: seeing kids as young as 13 drinking beers, lighting up joints, posing with enough knives & firearms to overthrow the city council, and filming tributes to slain friends. To be honest, if I didn’t have an emotional reaction to this parade of low ambition & self-destruction, there’d be something wrong with me.

In fact, when we think about the dangers for kids in our inner cities, it wouldn’t hurt to see emotion as a useful tool for analysis. Whilst there are always structural explanations for poverty, unemployment, social exclusion & family breakdown, what leads these young people into situations where they put their lives or other people’s lives at risk is a toxic brew of bravado & fear. It’s the combination of these which leads kids to join a gang, get hold of a weapon, threaten someone with a knife or gun, and then eventually use one. As Townsend’s report indicates, the wars in Pitsmoor & Burngreave aren’t over control of drug turf like you might find in Manchester; they result from petty beefs which escalate into murders because they’ve never learnt how to control their emotions.

The controlling, constraining nature of fear alters kids’ behaviour in other ways, too. Last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation conducted a study to see what impact ‘territorality’ (basically a nicer way of saying ‘ghettoisation’) had on the lives of young people. They asked kids to draw maps of their neighbourhoods and label which places they felt were safe to go and which were not:




As you can see from these pictures, pieces of land which may be no bigger than a single square mile can be written-off as ‘no go areas’, boxing these kids in to their gang-defined safety zones. As a result, they might not be able to access social services, leisure activities, schools, work or relationships with people from other areas. Their postcode becomes their world, and straying too far from it must feel like sailing off the edge of a flat earth.

So when we think about how we might reduce the harms of gang culture and the number of youngsters being stabbed or shot, of course we should consider those long-term structural aspects which social scientists have talked about for decades, but we should also think about practical ways of reducing the fear which causes many of these kids to join gangs, to rarely leave their small, ‘safe’ postcodes, to carry weapons and cause harm to others. This situation won’t get better with more crackdowns or ‘get tough’ pledges, but if you can make the streets seem a little less terrifying, you might just same some lives.

“Tough on crime” and other bad jokes

May 29, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, Prison Reform, Social Policy | Leave a comment

I wasn’t planning on writing anything tonight, but I’d just like to highlight an excellent – if disturbing – piece of journalism which aired on BBC’s Look North earlier this evening.

Towards the end of last year, it became apparent that the National Probation Service – the folks whose job it is to ensure that people who commit crimes don’t reoffend – would have to join just about every other branch of the public sector in having their budgets slashed. The cuts, estimated to be as much as £30 million, would have to be made in each area the country and the probation union NAPO warned that this would reduce the service’s already limited capacity to reform offenders, placing the public at greater risk of crime.

Anyway, Look North filed a Freedom of Information request and obtained the Ministry of Justice’s risk assessment document, which looked into the potential impact of any cuts. The document apparently gives ratings from one (negligible) to twenty-five (critical); in West Yorkshire, where £7m is expected to be cut, the impact was rated at twenty four. In other words, the public will be put at greater risk and criminals won’t have the same guidance to help them mend their ways.

Has there ever been a worse time to make cuts in the probation service? A time of deep recession, a time when prisons are so over-crowded that inmates are being released early or not sent to jail at all and a time when the reoffending rate already stands at 62%. Is this really the time to cut the budget of a service which is sometimes the only thing which stands in the way of offenders taking the easy route back to a life of crime?

As one anonymous probation officer told Look North: “We all came into this role to protect the public. We all feel strongly about the value the probation service has had for 100 years. We’re in the scenario now where our very existence seems to be getting stamped out by a government who seem more inclined to run the service like a McDonalds franchise.”

Quite. Of all the strategies this government’s followed in recent years, the notion that it can run the criminal justice system on the cheap has been the most baffling and will, over the long term, prove disastrous. The only irony is that they’ll only notice it when they’re languishing in opposition.

The social costs of Thatcherism

May 5, 2009 at 10:27 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime | Leave a comment

(Bear with me for a bit; most of the posts I write here over the next 10 days are going to be short & sweet whilst I sort out some personal/career type stuff. Perhaps I’ll learn how to blog concisely for a change).

In a piece arguing why Labour should hold firm to its criticisms of the Thatcher era, Anthony Painter makes an extremely important point:

The argument that Thatcherism was economically good but socially bad doesn’t really hold any more. A more accurate description would be that it was economically more likely to produce growth but contained hidden risks and had enormous social cost.

Exactly right, and those social costs created a financial burden on the state which the Conservatives were supposed to reduce. Sure, Thatcher succeeded in cutting loose the heavy burden of nationalised industry, but as a result you saw increases in unemployment, crime, drug use & generational welfare dependency. In short, costs were shifted to another part of the state.

Perhaps a Thatcherite would reason that the social costs of her reign were outweighed by the benefits and that the speed of Britain’s economic renaissance would’ve been hampered by the gradualist approach advised by some Tories of that era. But the problem with that position is that when we look back on her reign now, we can see that the economic rewards Thatcherism reaped have proved transient whilst the social costs remain entrenched.

Ultimately, it’s the British taxpayer who has to foot the bill for these costs and I do wonder at our collective ability to pay billions for the policing & punishment of crime & drugs (for example) without there being much to demonstrate that the money we spend is leading to these problems (and their costs) being reduced. As I’ve said before, reducing reoffending, ending the war on drugs and completely rethinking what we do with the welfare state wouldn’t just have the potential to make people’s lives better, but to save us all a lot of money. Sounds like good business to me.

Only our schools will reduce youth crime

February 24, 2009 at 10:21 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, Education | 2 Comments

I don’t want to dwell for too long on the many shades of wrong in Chris Grayling’s big speech – not least because you’ve probably read septicisle’s strong critique and nodded/grimaced in all the right places – but I do think there are aspects of his fondness for child curfews which need addressing.

First, we should remember that the child curfew already has a long and undistinguished history as a tool for cutting crime. In 1998, Labour made it possible for courts & councils to impose curfews on children under the age of 10, but just a year later it was clear the measures were a flop and even Jack Straw admitted it was a mistake. Undeterred by the failure and apparently oblivious to all the voices who insisted it was a bad policy, the government extended the measures in 2001, this time including children up to the age of 15. They returned again in 2008 as the panic over gun crime saw Labour scrambling for more tough-sounding measures to stuff in its Youth Crime Action Plan. So Grayling’s idea would be – by my count – the fourth attempt by a government to use curfews as an effective crime deterrant. There’s a word for people who try the same thing over and over again, but expect a different result.

The child curfew always strikes me as the modern day equivalent of the ‘clip ’round the ear’; an easy newsbite which is eulogised as a means of keeping the streets safe and disciplining tearaway teens (in spite of evidence to the contrary) but completely ignorant of the economic, emotional and educational aspects which underlies their behaviour. It’s true that there are kids in this country who are troubled and who make trouble for the rest of us. Their numbers are exaggerated – even amongst working class children – but they do exist, they’re difficult to reason with and even harder to control. But one thing Early Intervention has found is that at-risk children start exhibiting signs of being in trouble when they’re in primary school, and if those warning signs aren’t detected and treated as easly as possible, then disruptive and ‘anti-social’ behaviour is much more likely later on in life. Your ability to alter a child’s behaviour and life chances at age 5 or 6 is much greater than at 14 or 15.

So if you want to be seen as serious about reducing youth crime, stop bringing out the Shadow Home Secretary to announce a few feeble, second-hand measures. Instead, bring us a Shadow Education Secretary to explain how he’ll rig the school system so that kids who exhibit signs of trouble can get the kind of help which might save them.

David Howarth on the criminal justice system

February 13, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, New Labour, Prison Reform | 3 Comments

Give this man a medal:

There is a crisis in the criminal justice system of staggering proportions. The prison population is at a record high, and is eating up £ billions in public expenditure. 70% of prisoners suffer from two or more recognised mental illnesses. Vast numbers are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Prisoners are shunted around the country at an alarming rate in a desperate attempt to find places. Constructive activities for prisoners are becoming increasingly difficult to complete. Thousands of prisoners are threatened with the Catch 22 that they have been sentenced to an indeterminate sentence so that they can only obtain release if they complete certain courses, but no such courses exist at the prisons where they find themselves. Meanwhile, community sentences are underfunded and non-custodial sentences we know are effective in reducing re-offending, such as restorative justice, are left on the shelf.

We need to stick to what works to reduce reoffending, and, within what works, we need to concentrate effort on offenders who are likely to commit the most new crimes and the most serious new crimes. The government and the Tories are obsessed with placating the Daily Mail with talk of punishment and deterrence, but that approach, because it fails to concentrate on what really works to reduce reoffending, effectively causes more crime. If existing resources were moved from programmes that do not work – such as short-term prison sentences that have vast failure rates – to programmes that do, such as restorative justice and drug and alcohol treatment, the crime rate would be lower. By refusing to follow such an approach, and instead indulging their more atavistic tendencies, both Labour and the Tories are permitting more crime than should be happening. That is why they are the pro-crime parties.

There are a number of things about this piece which make me happy. In 2005, Howarth was the recipient of my first ever vote, and whilst it was nice enough just to see the back of the rather useless Anne Campbell, that’s since been superceded by an admiration for how well he articulates the causes of civil liberties and social justice.

Second, what’s striking about the section above is not just that he understands the myriad wrongs in the criminal justice system, but that he’s able to frame them within a ‘tough on crime’ narrative which contends that Labour is actually contributing to crime, not tackling it. Whilst he only briefly alludes to the solutions, the suggestion that his Ministry of Justice would be more nuanced, pragmatic and results-based is more than enough to earn him a spot in my fantasy cabinet.

Lastly, it’s heartening to see him talking about this issue within the broader context of civil liberties and constitutional reform. One of the frustrations I have with the ‘civil liberties movement’ is that its focus is overwhelmingly on the restrictions Labour has imposed (or would like to impose) on those whom the law presumes to be innocent (42 day detention, DNA databases, ID cards etc etc). Those policies obviously need smart & vigorous opposition, but it often seems like there’s then little room for discussion about safeguarding the rights of people the law knows to be guilty. I’ve always thought that people who argue for reform of our criminal justice system were natural bedfellows for civil libertarians, but that’s not a sense I get when traipsing around the blogosphere. In this piece, Howarth ties the two together, and for that he deserves great credit.

Repeat offenders

May 22, 2008 at 10:53 am | Posted in British Politics, Crime, New Labour | Leave a comment
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Tokenistic and superficial – Richard Garside’s withering appraisal of Labour’s attempts to deal with the causes of crime, as opposed to just banging people up in prison. Why, after 11 years and significant investment by the government, hasn’t there been any measurable impact on the level of youth crime? Garside argues that Labour’s obsession with trying to achieve it through the criminal justice system (and in so doing drawing money away from social programmes that could prove more effective) is a prime culprit:

But the most striking fact, given all the time and money spent by Labour on youth justice in the past decade, is that there has been no measurable impact on the level of reported youth offending. Since 2001 the same proportion of children – a quarter – year on year admit to having committed one offence or more. Looking further back in time the picture remains roughly the same since at least the early 1990s. Put simply, the government has spent 10 years reforming the youth justice system, spending several billion pounds, to no noticeable effect.

The lesson of the last 10 years is that seeking to solve the problem of youth crime through the criminal justice system, however tough, is unlikely to be effective. A feature of Labour’s youth justice reforms of the past decade is that money that previously would have been available to spend on social programmes has been diverted into youth justice spend. Some 15% of funding for Youth Offending Teams, for instance, is drawn from social services budgets. The youth justice system has, in effect, become a de facto social service designed to provide a range of social support services to some of the most troubled, troublesome and needy of young people.

For the more time-rich among you, he’s produced a report for the Centre for Crime & Justice Studies on what Labour has done over the 10 years and how it should change its approach.

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