Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Gordon's Dilemma Over Penal Policy

I have a builder friend whom I remember reacting to the two Bulger killers-themselves children- with the injunction: 'Top 'em both!' I've also faced similar attitudes from my large current affairs class containing mostly mature graduates. So the poll in today's Guardian on attitudes to prison came as something of a revelation. I had assumed that most of the population were gung ho for retribution, for locking em up and throwing away the key, even for bringing back the birch. Such attitudes are understandable, of course: anyone just mugged, robbed or attacked would like to see the perpetrators suffer way more than the hurt they have inflicted. But the gut feeling reaction won't help, of course.

The facts are undeniable as Polly Toynbee reminds us this morning: 80% of offenders re-offend within two years and cost £42,000 a year to keep inside. Prison really does not work. Today's poll suggests that the message has finally got through with 51% now saying alternative ways to prison should be sought to deter crime and 46% in favour of building more of the same. Meanwhile 49% agree that 'it turns people into professional criminals who then commit more crime' and only 42% believe prison 'deters others'.

There is a strange paradox at the heart of law and order policy it has always seemed to me: government knows from all its research and internal reports that draconian penal policy doesn't work but feels it has to respond to society's gut feelings- often inflamed by tabloid rhetoric in the wake of monstrous crimes like the killing of James Bulger and now Rhys Jones. That visceral desire for revenge is something we all understand and it is inevitable that politicians, seeking power, will exploit it. Tony Blair succumbed to it, to a degree, with his 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' mantra and it did him and Labour quite a bit of good.

Initially David Cameron was in favour of understanding vulnerable youth offenders but suddenly we see a knee-jerk swing to the right with his 'broken society' analysis. Result? Conservatives head Labour on law and order. Gordon Brown's attitudes to penal policy are not clear and it will be interesting to see how he moves to win back the advantage. As a rational person who studies the facts he will know prison doesn't work but as politician he will know that the desire for retribution works all too well politically.

Will he accept that with falling crime figures a doubling of prison numbers over the past decade does not make sense? Or will he push the 'lock 'em up' button to win back votes for his second term? Confucious said that 'if you look for revenge, then dig two graves'; wreaking revenge on wrong doers ultimately hurts society as much as it hurts the offenders. Maybe the heart of the problem is that, while prison does not work, it's the only answer, for the time being, of which we know. If Gordon can come up with a genuine answer to the conumdrum, he deserves not one but several extra terms.

Spot on, Skip.

Cameron's so-called "broken society analysis" is a joke - it consists solely of the naive and patronising phrase, "children do best if mum and dad are there to help bring them up".

There is a specific point to be made about role models (which Straw has picked up on re black "yoof" crime), but Cameron extrapolates this into a philosophical statement about human nature. Like many conservatives, Cameron has foregone his considerable intellectual abilities to pursue social prejudices.
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