January 26, 2009

Easier said than done

Maybe Alasdair Palmer was writing tongue in cheek on Sunday when he said, "Want to cut violent crime? It's quite simple". He reminds us that burglary and crimes of violence were up during the last three months of 2008, and violent crime has doubled since 1997 - and that's according to official figures.
It is not ... that difficult to improve the justice system and to bring down crimes of violence. It has been done in America: in Boston, for example, aggressive policing and the conviction and harsh sentencing of those carrying guns on the street brought violent crime levels down by 60 per cent. In 1995, there were five times as many street robberies in New York City as in London. Today, London has 14,000 more street robberies a year than does New York.
There are three basic steps, he says.
  1. Provide incentives to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that violent criminals are prosecuted rather than let off with cautions (the number of violent criminals given cautions has increased by 82 per cent over the past five years).
  2. Increase significantly the minimum sentences for violent crimes: if you are part of a gang that rapes someone and douses them in caustic soda, for example, you should go to prison for life, not come up for release in two and half years (as will happen to Jason Brew, convicted of that crime last week).
  3. Increase significantly the number of prison places so that the greater number of criminals sentenced to longer terms can be accommodated.
Attractive but not as easy as they sound.

First, why should the police and the CPS be given incentives for doing their jobs properly? Let's rather ask where the fault lies. The CPS can only look at cases the police bring to them. So presumably the CPS are the blockers.

How to stop the blocking? Perhaps require the CPS to use a lower likelihood of conviction as the bar to be jumped before they will prosecute allegations of violent crimes. Maybe the CPS has targets which militate against such an approach, in which case they should be dropped. The police may have other suggestions. We have different local forces, so different experiments can be tried in different parts of the country. Police forces - and the CPS - should make public suggestions.

The public also needs to understand why cautions for violence are rising. Is this uniform across the country? Is it deliberate police policy? If so, why?

The second proposal is a good one. Raising maximum sentences isn't working. Only five drug dealers have received the maximum jail sentence in the past decade.

The third policy is to increase significantly the number of prison places so that the greater number of criminals sentenced to longer terms can be accommodated. This is essential. We need realistic sentences, and truth in sentencing - the sentence the judge gives is what you get, with perhaps a few months off near the end for good behaviour. This takes time. Meanwhile, a government may have to find temporary accommodation, increase cell sharing, and suspend prisoners' human rights. Facilities should be withdrawn, work should be harder, prisons should become places you certainly don't want to be.

The political problem with this approach is that it reminds voters of Michael Howard, and look what happened to him politically. So Chris Grayling will probably have to keep his policies under the counter while highlighting Jacqui Smith's failures, which should give plenty of scope.

But the next Tory government should be ready to implement these approaches.


Dr Dan H. said...

What you have to remember here is that going to prison is optional. It is completely and simply a personal choice on the part of a person to commit crime or not, and if you commit crimes then sooner or later you'll get caught and imprisoned.

So, this realisation neatly side-steps most of the prison reformer ideas of prisoners having lots and lots of rights. By choosing actions which society warns will lead to prison a prisoner can be said to have opted to go in the full and certain knowledge that prison is hard, boring and miserable.

What I would suggest is to tack a mandatory rehabilitation onto the end of each prison sentence, to try to reform or at least slightly rehabilitate a person after a long time in mind-numbingly nasty conditions, to prevent the release of institutionalised morons.

I would also suggest looking at the criminal record system, so that a single criminal mistake gets forgotten about by the System quickly, and a longer criminal career sticks with a person far longer.

John Page said...

Good points. And perhaps no one should be released until they can read and are drug free.