Monday, June 6, 2011

Seduced by the politics of penal populism

David Wilson | The Independent | 16 August 2006
Would 10,000 new offences make us all feel safer and keen to re-elect New Labour?
New Labour's new 3,023 offences demonstrate just how deeply they have been seduced by the politics of penal populism. This astonishing number of new crimes reflects the desire of a government to legislate first and think later - if they think at all. For what matters most to them is not to carefully assess the evidence that they have, but rather to be seen to have "done something" - anything - in the face of each new moral panic that bubbles up in the red-top papers.
This month moral panics about asylum seekers; prisoners absconding from open prisons, and suspected terrorists with plans to blow up aircraft, and lastly - indeed a favourite target throughout the course of New Labour's tenure in office - a police crackdown on young people.
New criminal offences can symbolise many things - from the changing sensibilities of our culture, to the need to legislate because of technological or economic developments. But first and foremost they reveal a paradox that lays bare the Government's strength and weakness. The strength to push legislation through parliament and control a political process, but a weakness to actually do anything about that elephant in the sitting room - crime.
The long list of new offences might, or might not, do anything about the level of crime in our community (it is difficult to be more precise for some of these pieces of legislation need time to bed into the criminal justice system before we can assess their impact).Crime is a complex phenomenon which has more to do with underlying economic causes and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and as such can remain almost untouched by each new act that seems to promise much, but often delivers very little.
Look at the Anti Social Behaviour Order (Asbo), which was introduced in the 1997 Crime and Disorder Act when New Labour first came to power. Without doubt there are some communities that are indeed plagued by diverse behaviours from people whom the popular press, and indeed politicians such as Jack Straw (who is never slow to volunteer information about "Family X" in his constituency of Blackburn), like to describe as "neighbours from Hell"; but the Asbo was an idea that went wrong almost immediately. You cannot blame poor communities for social malfunction, or expect them to be repaired through an Asbo, when there are few opportunities for improvement, and a dearth of institutional support for those communities - which, ironically is what many people thought that they were voting for when they elected New Labour.
Hand in glove with the creation of all these new criminal offences goes the need to police these new offences, and then punish the perpetrators. Under New Labour prison in particular has become a place to disappear that troublesome population which has remained resolutely resistant to Asbos, community curfews, on-the-spot fines, or the blandishment of all the new 'Bobbies on the beat', Community Support Officers, or private security guards who are now increasingly policing public space.
With little community infrastructure to support people with mental health problems, or addictions - often the reason why "crime" is committed in the first place - prison has re-invented itself and become re-legitimised as the functioning alternative to the welfare state of Old Labour.
Given that there is a consensus between New Labour and the Conservatives about law and order there seems little to be gained in considering whether things might have been different if Blair had lost to Major in 1997.
The simple fact is that "cross-dressing" in relation to criminal justice policy has been alive and well since the early 1990s. That is the time when Jack Straw and Tony Blair learned from conservative US Democrats like Bill Clinton - who famously used his support of the death penalty to win the Presidential election against George Bush Snr - that the way for left-of-centre parties to regain power was to ensure that they were seen to be "tough on crime". Romantics might like to remember that the second part of this famous aphorism was to be "tough on the causes of crime", but criminological realists all recognise that that is but a distant soundbite which couldn't compete against red-top editorials predicting the end of civilisation as we know it.
Where will it end - 4,000 new offences? Perhaps 5,000? Would 10,000 new offences make us all feel safer and keen to re-elect New Labour? Ironically, with the "fear of crime" still high, it might be that the best way to convince the electorate that "something is being done" is to do nothing at all. Alternatively, we might elect a government that was keen to look beyond the statute book and deal with those structural factors in our society that impact on crime. A government that saw its purpose in creating opportunities for employment; ensuring that our children get access to good schools and well-qualified teachers; and that this was all under-pinned by a welfare safety net to provide a bulwark against the extremes of poverty. If we were to elect a government that got these things right, we would deliver the circumstances in which people could go about their lives peaceably and that would also make others behave without the need for more and more "crimes".
The writer is professor of criminology at UCE Birmingham

No comments:

Post a Comment