Crime: the political Cinderella issue

Written for the Journal, August 2019

I’ve been a victim of crime in the past, on at least three occasions – vehicle crime and a random unprovoked assault. One in seven people in the North East were victims of crime last year. Crime destroys lives, tears apart families, and rips at the fabric of society. Yet it’s been the elephant in the room, the forgotten issue of British politics – ignored until, this summer, our new Home Secretary dared to suggest that criminals should fear the consequences of committing crimes.

Her exact phrasing was clumsy: an unfortunate choice of words conveying what should have been a straightforward message. When I’ve been a victim of crime, I felt fear: the perpetrators – who have each time got off without punishment – almost certainly did not. Such an imbalance cannot be correct in a just and fair society.

My grandfather (unlike me) supported the death penalty. As a village bobby, one day he was confronted with a gun-wielding poacher. Before the trigger was pulled, my grandfather said to him “Make no mistake: if you shoot me, you will hang”. The poacher went white as a sheet and dropped the gun. To his dying day, my grandfather was convinced that his life was saved only by the criminal’s fear of the death penalty. Deterrence works, though I couldn’t trust our current society, government, and judiciary sufficiently to enforce the death penalty fairly. 

The Home Secretary is correct to recognise that criminals (disproportionately likely to display sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies) will often act in their own self-interest: fear of the consequences changes the dynamic of that self-interest. Left-wingers point to Norway as a bastion of low re-arrest rates. They’re right to an extent (though Singapore, a fiendishly tough penal system, has even lower re-arrest rates), but they rarely point out that so-called soft-touch Norway has mandatory prison sentences for speeding motorists, who are unlikely to re-offend. Yet Norway and Singapore share one thing in common: rehabilitation. 

Deterrence and rehabilitation are two sides of the same coin. The Left screams ‘rehabilitation’; the Right, ‘deterrence’. They’re both right. And wrong. In a justice system where criminals know the punishment will be proportional to the crime, sufficiently unpleasant to make them truly regret the commission of it, they will be amenable to rehabilitation. But society pays lip-service to rehabilitation; we don’t do that properly either. 

Our justice system is soft-touch. Take domestic burglary as an example: a horrific crime to any family who’s experienced it. Sentencing guidelines split the offence into three categories. The middle category has a ‘starting point’ for judges of a 12-month prison sentence. A guilty plea attracts a one-third reduction on sentence, and then only half is served before a prisoner is released – meaning that the burglar intending to rob your house will likely serve only 4 months, if caught. Even the most serious (requiring great harm and culpability – such as deliberately targeting a house where vulnerable or disabled people live, and using/threatening violence or ransacking the property) offences have a ‘starting point’ of 3 years – which reduces to just 1 year after the reduction for a guilty plea and only half of the sentence actually being served. Disgraceful. 

We need tough rehabilitation too. Why are criminals released with such little support? If we want to stop the revolving door of prison to crime to prison, prisoners must be able to get jobs on the outside (this article is too short to cover innovative ways of doing that). And don’t get me started on the failings of mental health services. The carrot-and-stick approach works, but we seem to have a system that lacks both carrot and stick. 

The criminal justice system is a mess from start to finish: insufficient policing; politically-correct policing priorities; an overworked prosecution service; a chaotic courts service; a broken legal aid system; a substandard probation system; an understaffed and overcrowded prison system without enough places, and no real determination to break the cycle of offending. 

As a right-winger, I’ll rarely argue that the State should spend more money on anything (you can generally spend your cash better than the government can), but the fight against crime is about protecting citizens: the very definition of the role of the State. Funding can be found from government waste elsewhere. Our criminal justice system is a disgrace; fixing this mess shouldn’t be a now-forgotten headline for a couple of days. It should be a major and enduring issue in British politics.