Category Archives: Crime and punishment

Rebutting Tory attack lines: crime and punishment

Rebutting Tory attack lines: crime and punishment
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
22 November 2019

Earlier this month the Guardian reported the Tories hope to win Labour seats at the general election “with a tough stance on law and order”.

This follows a string of tabloid-friendly announcements by Boris Johnson’s government in October, including extending sentences, creating 10,000 new prison places, increasing police numbers and giving the police more stop and search powers. Polling indicates these proposals may have widespread public support, with an August 2019 YouGov poll finding 75 per cent of people support increasing stop and search powers, including 61% of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters.

While Labour’s policies on this issue may not be as radical or evidence-based as one would like – the party has uncritically echoed the Tories with a pledge to increase police numbers, for example – it is important to rebut right-wing myths about crime and punishment.

First it is important to note the Conservative Party’s whole law and order agenda, including its incoming attack lines on Corbyn’s Labour Party, is based on a myth – that the UK is currently soft on crime and criminals.

In reality, “Scotland and England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe”, the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) note in their authoritative Bromley Briefing. England and Wales have 139 prisoners per 100,000 people, while Germany has 77, and Sweden just 59.

Today the prison population of England and Wales is 82,440, up from around 50,000 in the late 1980s.

As this suggests, today “sentencing is much, much tougher than it used to be”, Peter Dawson, the Director of PRT, wrote in the Metro newspaper last month.

Ministry of Justice statistics show in 2018 more than two and a half times as many people were sentenced to 10 years or more than in 2006. “We have a higher proportion of life sentenced prisoners than any other country in Europe, including Russia and Turkey”, Dawson notes. And, incredibly, England and Wales have more people serving indeterminate sentences – prison sentences which don’t have a fixed length of time – “than Germany, Russia, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia combined”, according to PRT.

The problem is, as Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University, and Steve Tombs, Professor Criminology at the Open University, noted in the Guardian in August, “The idea that yet another prison building programme, and tougher sentences, will increase public protection is a fallacy.”

“There is no link between the prison population and levels of crime”, PRT confirms, citing National Audit Office data.

The writer Johann Hari brilliantly clarified the politics around this in 2003: “The choice is not between ‘tough’ and ‘soft’ it is between effective and useless”, he wrote in the Independent. “‘Tough’ policies – put them in an empty cell and leave them to rot and rape each other – just don’t work.  It is not those of us who want rehabilitation who are betraying the mugged grannies and the burgled primary schools – it is the [ex-Home Secretary Michael] Howards and the [ex-Home Secretary David] Blunketts, who choose facile posturing over policies that actually work.”

Ditto police numbers, which have little connection to crime levels according to the Guardian. “Violent crime…. was falling between 2009 and 2014 – at the same time as police officer numbers were being cut”, the newspaper notes. “And in 2008, when police numbers were at a high, knife deaths of teenagers and children were higher than they had been over the previous 10 years.”

The evidence underpinning more stop and search powers is similarly shaky. Citing a study by Marian Fitzgerald, a Visiting Professor of Criminology at the University of Kent, in 2010 the Guardian noted “there is little connection between the use of stop and search powers by the Metropolitan Police and reductions in knife crime.” Analysing the use of Section 60 in London – which allow the police to introduce stop and search without suspicion in a designated area at a specific time – Fitzgerald found “The boroughs which have resisted politically driven pressures to take a gung-ho approach to using Section 60 have been as successful in reducing knife crime, and often more so, than the boroughs where the police have been happy to let Section 60 searches go through the roof.”

In contrast to the Tory’s narrative, in 2007 Robert Reiner, Professor of Criminology at the London School of Economics, noted “a plethora of research shows that the criminal justice system can have little effect on crime overall, which flows from deeper social and cultural wellsprings.” Reiner’s take is backed up by testimony from Patricia Gallan in 2018, then Assistant Commissioner Specialist Crime and Operations in the Metropolitan Police, who noted “Those that end up in the criminal justice system tend to be the people who have less money and less opportunity in society.” Indeed the government’s own Serious Violence Strategy notes that crime and anti-social behaviour “correlate with… poor life outcomes such as low educational attainment, poor health and unemployment.”

This gets to the heart of the matter, with the authors of the 2007 Centre for Crime and Justice Studies report Knife Crime: A Review of Evidence and Policy arguing “The link between crime and deeper structural causes of inequality, poverty and social disaffection needs to be fully acknowledged and acted upon if the solutions are to be more than cosmetic and short term.”

And this is where a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn comes in – as the best chance we have had for generations to reorder the economy and tax system, to reduce poverty, properly fund public services, introduce a decent living wage, expand adult education and thus create a more equal, cohesive society. It is these structural changes, rather than the tabloid’s evidence-free obsessions of tougher sentencing and more “bobbies on the beat”, that will significantly reduce the level of crime and antisocial behaviour in society.

Further reading: Prison Reform Trust’s summer 2019 Bromley Briefing

Tomorrow Ian will look at the evidence behind claims Corbyn’s Labour Party is “riddled” with antisemitism. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Knife crime: myth and reality

Knife crime: myth and reality
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 May 2019

Fuelled by the right-wing media, a number of myths have grown up around the topic of knife crime. With the number of knife offences (39,818) and homicides committed with a knife (285) reaching record highs in 2018, according to the Home Office, it’s worth interrogating these falsehoods, and considering interventions which might help.

Myth: Knife crime is committed “almost exclusively” by young Black men. Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in March, co-host Piers Morgan stated “statistically, it looks like in London, right now… the perpetrators and the victims appear to be almost exclusively young Black men.”

Reality: Citing Freedom of Information requests made to police forces, in July 2018 Sky News noted that in London “Almost half of murder victims – as well as suspects – were black despite the ethnic group accounting for just 13% of London’s population.” However, Sky News also explained “Numbers for the rest of the country painted a different picture, with murder victim and suspect figures more or less proportionate to the makeup of the population.” For example, in February BBC News noted the worst place for fatal stabbings in the UK, in proportion to population, was Inverclyde in Scotland. A few miles to the east the 95 per cent white Glasgow was, until recently, dubbed – by the Daily Mail – “the knife crime capital of Britain”.

“There are likely to be important socio-economic factors in homicides that cannot be examined using” the basic data, a 2019 Office for National Statistics report conceded. Indeed, according to the Serious Violence Strategy published by the government last year “the evidence on links between serious violence and ethnicity is limited. Once other factors are controlled for, it is not clear from the evidence whether ethnicity is a predictor of offending or victimisation.” Taking a “wide range of factors into account”, including ethnicity, a 2003 study by the Youth Justice Board titled Young People & Street Crime echoed this conclusion. It found “two main factors explained differences in the levels of street crime between [London] boroughs… the level of deprivation… and the extent of population change” – the number of young people as a proportion of the total population.

“Crime is prevalent in poor areas, and since black people are disproportionality poor, they are disproportionately affected – as perpetrators and victims”, The Guardian’s Gary Younge noted in 2017, after extensive investigative work into knife crime. “It’s class – not race or culture – that is the defining issue.”

Myth: Stop and search is effective in reducing knife crime. “Police in England and Wales are being given greater stop and search powers to tackle rising knife crime”, BBC News reported at the end of March. “Home Secretary Sajid Javid is making it easier for officers to search people without reasonable suspicion in places where serious violence may occur.”

Reality: “There is a misconception that just doing loads more stop and search is the solution… that is simply not the case”, explained Nick Glynn, the former College of Policing lead on stop and search, on Channel 4 News last month. The news programme compared Metropolitan Police figures on Section 60 stop and search powers – which allow the police to introduce stop and search without suspicion in a designated area at a specific time – with knife crime offences from the Mayor of London’s office. In 2016 the Met used Section 60 442 times, and there was 11,132 knife crime offences. In 2018 the Met massively increased their use of section 60 to 7,326 times. However, there was also an increase in knife crime offences in the same year – to 14,714.

“The inconsistent nature and weakness” of the association between stop and search and crime levels, “provide only limited evidence of stop and search having acted as a deterrent at a borough level”, a 2017 College of Policing study concluded after analysing data from 2000-2014.

This is not news. Citing a study conducted by Marian Fitzgerald, a Visiting Professor of Criminology at the University of Kent, in 2010 the Guardian noted “there is little connection between the use of stop and search powers by the Metropolitan police and reductions in knife crime.”

Fitzgerald analysed the use of Section 60 in London. “The boroughs which have resisted politically driven pressures to take a gung-ho approach to using Section 60 have been as successful in reducing knife crime, and often more so, than the boroughs where the police have been happy to let Section 60 searches go through the roof”, she noted.

Myth: More and tougher prison sentences will reduce knife crime. “Despite the rhetoric you hear from politicians about being tough on those who carry knives two-thirds of people who are convicted don’t face prison”, John Apter, Chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, noted on Good Morning Britain in March. “We have a Justice Secretary saying we need to scarp shorter sentences because the prisons are full. My argument – build more prisons.”

Reality: The evidence shows that compared to ten years ago those convicted for carrying a knife are more likely to be jailed, and if jailed they are more likely to spend longer inside. Quoting Ministry of Justice figures, in March BBC News explained that 37 per cent of offenders were jailed and a further 18 per cent given suspended prison sentences in 2018, compared to 20 per cent and 9 per cent respectively in 2008. The average prison term has increased from five months in 2008 to well over eight months in 2018, with 85 per cent serving at least three months in 2018, compared to 53 per cent in 2008.

More broadly, the UK has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe (141 prisoners per 100,000 people).

However, it is essential to understand “there is no link between the prison population and levels of crime”, as the Prison Reform Trust explained in its 2018 Bromley Briefing, directly quoting the National Audit Office. Robert Reiner, Professor of Criminology at the London School of Economics, confirmed this awkward fact in the Guardian in 2007: “A plethora of research shows that the criminal justice system can have little effect on crime overall, which flows from deeper social and cultural wellsprings”.

Tackling the real causes of knife crime

Speaking on Good Morning Britain in March Akala, a hip hop artist and author of Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, noted “the social indicators” of violent street crime have remained “consistent for 200 years: relative poverty, masculinity, exposure to domestic violence, lack of education.”

His take broadly echoes the thoughts of Patricia Gallan, who was Assistant Commissioner Specialist Crime and Operations in the Metropolitan Police. “If you start looking at where crime impacts, it happens in the poorest areas of society”, she told the Guardian in June 2018. “Those that end up in the criminal justice system tend to be the people who have less money and less opportunity in society.”

The austerity implemented since 2010 by the Tories (and Lib Dems until 2015) has created a perfect storm of harmful societal effects. Inequality and absolute poverty increased in 2017-18, according to Department for Work and Pensions data; over 100 youth centres have closed in London since the 2011 riots, according to figures obtained by the Green Party’s Sian Berry; the number of primary school children who have been excluded across the country has doubled since 2011, according to official government data. Most frightening is the recent warning from the Resolution Foundation’s Adam Corlett that the “bulk” of the effects of the government’s planned £12 billion benefit cuts will be felt over the next few years, with poverty rates likely to increase to a record high.

Poverty, inequality and deprivation – these are the factors that need to be addressed if we want to significantly reduce knife crime. However, beyond these big shifts, it seems positive change is also possible within the current political and economic system.

In Glasgow, until recently the so-called “murder capital of Europe” with acute levels of knife crime, a Violence Reduction Unit was set up in 2005. Taking an arms-length relationship with the police, the unit has adopted a holistic, public health approach to the issue, working with the health, education and social work sectors, shifting away from seeing the problem as a purely criminal issue. The result? A substantial reduction in the number of children and teenagers killed by knives.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Reaction to the Riots: Interview with Geoffrey Pearson

Reaction to the Riots: Interview with Geoffrey Pearson
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
15 September 2011

First published in 1983, Geoffrey Pearson’s Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears is widely acclaimed as a seminal text in British criminology. The Economist praised it as “a calm and witty history of moral panics that have gripped England over the ages… a brilliant survey”. Pearson is Emeritus Professor of Criminology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He spoke to Ian Sinclair about the recent riots in Britain.

IS: Can you summarise the main arguments and themes of ‘Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears’?

GP: The argument of Hooligan can be easily summarised. First, youth crime is invariably seen as something new, a radical departure from the stable traditions of the past. In fact there is a long connected history of youth crime stretching back over more than a century and a half, with people responding to each episode by looking back to a ‘golden age’ of peace and tranquillity.

I trace this back first by looking at the ‘Teddy Boys’ of the 1950s, who were regarded by many as evidence of a ‘new’ streak of insubordination that had overcome young people ‘since the war’. Then, I look at the pre-war alarm about youthful irresponsibility evidenced by ‘juvenile delinquents’, where there was a tendency, again, to look back to the stability in British society before the war before that.

However, before the Great War we find massive social concern about the newly-named ‘Hooligan’ gangs who rampaged around Victorian London in the late 1890s, engaging in pitched-battles between rival neighbourhood gangs and attacks on police and innocent passers-by. Similar street-fighting gangs were known and feared elsewhere in this period by different names – ‘Scuttlers’ in Manchester and Salford, and ‘Peaky Blinders’ in Birmingham. The Hooligans had adopted a uniform dress-style: bell-bottom trousers cut tight at the knee, neck-scarves, heavy leather belts, peaked caps, and a ‘donkey fringe’ hair-style with their hair heavily cropped and a tuft on the crown of the head. They were sometimes known as the ‘belt and pistol’ gangs because of allegations about their use of firearms, but more common implements were knives, iron bars, catapults, leather belts with heavy buckles, and boots said in some parts of London to be toe-plated with iron ‘to kill more easily’.

This history can then be traced back beyond the moral panic about ‘garotters’ in the 1860s to the huge social concern about ‘juvenile depravity’ in early Victorian society in the 1840s and 1850s, and beyond that to the long-standing preoccupation with unruly apprentices in pre-industrial society.

What is remarkable is that each time that this social anxiety crystallises around the youth question, it is accompanied by the same vocabulary of complaints. For example, the lack of respect shown to all forms of authority, whether parents, teachers, the police or the courts that is said to be a radical departure from the subordination shown in the past. Young criminals are also said to be becoming younger. Then there is the repeated accusation of family decline and the break-up of parental discipline, often linked to the demon drink (nowadays substance misuse). Finally, the corrupting influence of popular amusements – whether the penny-hop theatres and dancing saloons of early Victorian Britain, the Music Hall entertainments later in the century, the gangster ‘movies’ of the inter-war years, television and rock-and-roll in the 1950s, then video-nasties, hip-hop music and gangsta rap – held to be encouragements to imitative ‘copy-cat’ crime.

It is not that nothing changes. Of course things change. But this long, connected vocabulary of respectable fears seems itself immune to change. It is like some moral dodo, but one that keeps escaping from the museum, and is currently rampaging around the streets in the responses to the recent riots.

IS: Why has the idea of a ‘golden age’ of law and order been so popular throughout modern history? What are the drivers of this common sentiment?

GP: This is an interesting question. At one basic level, the durability of the idea of a ‘golden age’ has something to do with what we call nostalgia. It is also driven by the experience of living with modernity – a relentless process by which all conventions and moral sign-posts are up-rooted, leading to an experience of existential anxiety, especially among an older generation.

What is not clear to me, however, is whether this appeal to a ‘golden age’ is found in other national cultures. It is possible that societies such as France or the USA look at the past as a positive experience of republican upheaval, rather than in a mode of cultural pessimism. What is certain is that this way of thinking is deeply embedded in the British (or do I mean English?) national culture.

IS: How does the public debate surrounding the recent riots across the UK fit with the thesis outlined above?

GP: In so far as the events themselves are concerned, there are both continuities and differences. One apparent difference is that riots flared in so many otherwise disconnected localities. However, this is hardly unprecedented – we only need to recollect the Brixton disorders of 1981 that were followed by so-called ‘copy-cat’ riots in the Toxteth area of Liverpool and elsewhere. Indeed, fifty years before that in October 1931, following cuts in unemployment benefits, violent clashes flared between the unemployed and police in more than 30 towns and cities, involving baton charges, the use of high-pressure water-hoses, attacks on the police, looting and disorder, continuing for several days and causing the police to place a guard on shops, banks, court-houses and public buildings. These disturbances were more clearly politically organised, of course, whereas the recent riots were apparently spontaneous and nihilistic. It should be said that the significance of implicating Facebook in the riots is less a question of whether this is true, than that Facebook joins the history of the contaminating and corrosive influences such as Music Halls, movies, video nasties etc. that are accused of encouraging ‘copy-cat’ crime.

IS: What is the role of the mainstream media in this public debate?

GP: The mass media have traditionally played a major role in expressing and mobilising extreme feelings around moral panics. The term ‘moral panic’ should not be understood, as it so often is, as meaning that nothing is actually happening and that the media ‘make it all up’. Something quite significant obviously did happen in August 2011, but the idea of a ‘moral panic’ is that the media emphasise and exaggerate some aspects of what happened while minimising others. This is what news values – ‘writing news’ or ‘making news’ – is all about, and one should not place any blame on journalists, it is what their job is about. This however does not make the more sensationalist wing of journalism morally right.

IS: If the riots and looting were not about worsening discipline among the young, poorer parenting skills, the influence of hip-hop or a more permissive society, what caused them?

GP: It should be clear from what I have already said that the accusations against parental irresponsibility and popular amusements are part of a long-standing stock response to these kinds of disturbances. Because, if parental discipline is worsening whereas in the past it was intact, why does the historical record show that at various times parents were already being criticised and that the family was already said to be in a state of disrepair?

Nevertheless, many young people are growing up in families and communities that do not encourage them to aspire to a ‘normal’ working life, nor are there many opportunities available to them. Of course, unemployment does not lead automatically to violence and rioting. It leads more commonly to apathy and depression, at any rate among people who have lost jobs they previous had (whereas today many young people. and their parents, have never been employed).

A distinguished tradition within sociology has argued that where young people have no way of demonstrating status and self-worth, they create alternative systems of values for this purpose – whether thieving, fighting, defiance of authority, being ‘in the know’ about drugs – which are described by social scientists as ‘subcultures’ and known more generally as ‘gangs’. As John Pitts has persuasively argued, for many young people in modern Britain these ‘subcultures’ are no longer a form of transition from boyhood to manhood, but a ‘final destination’. These young people have nothing to aspire to, nothing to achieve, nothing to gain, and nothing to lose. The result: the acquisitive nihilism recently seen on our streets. Vandalism is the purest expression of this impulse: it does not even afford to property the dignity of something to be acquired, merely to be destroyed.

IS: As an A-Level Sociology student in the mid-90s I seem to remember being exposed to a lot of radical and class-based research and analysis conducted in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Open University, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Glasgow Media Group etc). Am I living under the illusion of a ‘golden age’ of radicalism in British sociology or has there been a shift in emphasis over the past 30 years? If so, what ramifications does this have for explaining events such as the recent riots?

GP: You are right. There was an up-surge in class-based radicalism in sociology during the 1970s and 1980s. This was something inspired by the radicalism of sociology in the USA, the counter-culture, Paris 1968 etc. Not all of this was ‘radical’ in a traditionally class-based Left sense, something I discussed in my book The Deviant Imagination. It had more of a Robin Hood, anarchist, hippie feel, and sometimes embraced far-Right libertarians such as Thomas Szasz in the ‘anti-psychiatry’ tendency.

If this was a ‘golden age’ of academic radicalism, then its rise and decline can be described in two ways. At the biographical level, many of the young academics drawn to radical sociology in the 1970s were people from ordinary backgrounds who were the first member of their family to have gone to university. (I know this because I was part of the same generation, and knew most of the people involved.) This was a time of university expansion following the Robbins Report and also of immense forward-looking optimism. Continuing this biographical line of thinking, these people’s careers (and mine) subsequently became routinised and professionalized, we were drawn into university politics and administration, the changing economic constraints of higher education required us to search for competitive research grants, staff-student ratios increased, etc. To continue this biographical displacement, many of these people were bewitched by Michel Foucault and fell into the traps and snares of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘cultural studies’.

Second, on the more general front, of course, this was associated with a decline in class-based politics in Britain (see Eric Hobsbawm’s essay ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ – written before Thatcherism, long before the disastrous miner’s strike.) Class-based radicalism was replaced, both in academia and in local government, by so-called ‘identity politics’ concerned primarily with ethnicity, gender, and cultural issues. This ‘identity politics’ had already been implicit in the ‘radicalism’ of the 1960s and 1970s. This is the agenda we now inherit.

Even the Conservative Party has now occupied this ‘cultural’ territory given Kenneth Clarke’s accusations against a ‘feral underclass’. But this, too, is nothing new. In the 1930s this ‘underclass’ was described as the ‘submerged tenth’ with proposals for compulsory sterilisation. In the late 19th century it was known as the ‘residuum’: ‘this vast residuum’, as Matthew Arnold described it, ‘marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes’. In the mid-century they were known as the ‘dangerous classes’, a drunken, demoralised and criminal rump, living below the labouring classes and the poor. Before that, they were known as the ‘mob’ and that says it all.

What this all means is that youth crime and violence, and their associated social problems, are not newly arrived but long-standing areas of social difficulty that are deeply ingrained in the social landscape. Correspondingly, they will not be solved by short, sharp shocks. What will be required are long-haul measures to encourage social inclusion. In one sense, Kenneth Clarke is right that imprisonment alone is not enough and must be accompanied by re-education and reform. But his claim that we have a ‘broken’ penal system is knee-jerk nonsense: we’ve heard of David Cameron’s ‘broken’ society for some time, so now we have a ‘broken’ prison system as well. But the prison system isn’t ‘broken’ – this once again appeals to a ‘golden age’ when everything was in working order – because prison itself has never worked. From its very beginnings in the 1840s the penitentiary system was criticised for its functional incapacity to control crime. What is needed instead is a bottom-up process of re-integration, built around families, schools and communities. But the problem remains: how do you ‘re-integrate’ people who were not integrated in the first place?

Interview with Nils Oberg, Director-General of Sweden’s Prison Service

Interview with Nils Oberg, Director-General of Sweden’s Prison Service
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 December 2014

“I am very reluctant on giving anyone advice on how they construct their criminal policies”, Nils Öberg says.

This humble attitude, though polite, masks the fact Öberg, the Director-General of Sweden’s Prison and Probation Service, has much to teach the UK about crime and punishment. Indeed, the expertise he has gained from running one of the most progressive prison systems on the planet is the reason he gave the annual Longford Trust lecture on penal reform in London last week.

Talking to me before the lecture, Öberg, 54, explains that Sweden’s prison population has been falling since 2004, to around 5,500 prisoners today, including those held on remand. This translates to about 57 prisoners per 100,000 people – one of the lowest rates in Europe. With their prison population falling 6 percent this year Sweden has been able to close four of their 56 prisons. In contrast, as of October 2014 England and Wales had over 85,000 people behind bars – around 149 prisoners per 100,000 people, one of the highest rates in Europe. In his recent annual report the chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales highlighted a shocking 69 percent rise in prison suicides in a system characterised by overcrowding, rising violence and worsening safety.

How does Öberg explain the significant reduction in prison numbers in Sweden? “We have a couple of educated guesses and hypotheses”, he replies. First, he notes the courts have for a number of years been giving out more lenient sentences, particularly for drug related offences. This follows a 2011 decision by Sweden’s Supreme Court which reduced sentences for serious drug offences, such as drug smuggling. “So that, in combination, would mean the total prison years will shrink as a result of more lenient sentencing”, he says. He also thinks that the recent reorganisation of the police force from 21 independent local forces into one national force may well have affected the efficiency of its criminal investigations and therefore level of convictions. Finally, he hopes the prison service’s investment in rehabilitation has helped to reduce reoffending. The rate of reoffending in Sweden currently stands between 30 – 40 percent after three years – again, one of the lowest rates in Europe.

“The prison sentence is the punishment”, Öberg explains. “We don’t see our role and purpose to punish while the clients and inmates are with us. Our prime purpose is to prepare them for reintegration into society as best we can.” He continues: “We try to keep our focus on addressing all the various issues that our inmates and clients bring with them”. These range from “a very loose connection to the job market to very serious health problems or mental health problems, or broken social relations in general, drug addiction or substance abuse.”

Researching the topic before the interview, I am struck by the relative comfort that prisoners seem to experience in Swedish prisons. Newspapers would be screaming “prison is like a holiday camp!” if similar conditions existed in the UK. Öberg has little time for this argument: “Anyone who holds that view doesn’t know very much about what it is like to be in prison. Anybody in the profession, wherever you are in the world, will know the human cost of incarceration.” Part of blame for the public’s ignorance lies with the prison service itself, he believes: “It perhaps reflects our own inability to educate the public on what we are actually doing and what it is like to be relieved of your freedom for a shorter or longer period of time.”

Öberg’s unwillingness to blame others is also evident in his thoughts on the role of the media. I tell him that significant sections of the British press arguably play an unhelpful role in the politics of criminal justice, amplifying the public’s fear of crime and often pushing for harsher sentencing. For example, the Prison Reform Trust’s latest briefing notes that 45 percent of crimes reported in newspapers in the UK involve sex or violence, compared with only 3 percent of actual reported crime. “I don’t recognise that description”, he replies. He’s referring to Sweden, though his answer applies beyond his country’s border. “Everywhere you go you have cases of violent crimes and tragic stories about victims of crime who have suffered tremendously from the crimes beings committed, but that’s just a reality in any society. That’s the problem. Media’s not the problem.”

However, he does note one significant difference between the Swedish and UK media. “There is a self-censorship in our media when it comes to children. So a child that will have committed a serious crime, the moment the media realises the story is about somebody underage that story goes cold and will not be published for obvious reasons.” It may be obvious to Öberg but one need only think of the endless and lurid press coverage of children who have committed crimes in the UK to realise just how far apart our two nations are on this issue. Sweden’s unofficial agreement is no doubt helped by the fact their age of criminal responsibility is 15 – one of the highest in Europe. In England and Wales it is 10 – one of the lowest in Europe (do you see a pattern emerging yet?). According to The Guardian’s prison correspondent Erwin James, in the UK a life sentence can be handed down to a 10-year old, while in Sweden no one under the age of 21 can be sentenced to life.

Another key difference between our two countries, Öberg explains in his lecture, is there is very little overt political interference in the running of the Swedish prison and probation service. Öberg notes, for example, that criminal justice was not part of the political debate during the recent general elections in Sweden.

Throughout the lecture it’s refreshing to hear Öberg repeatedly refer to pragmatic policies which are based on scientific evidence. Compare this, again, to the press-infused, evidence-free political debate in this country with Labour and the Tories trying to outdo each other on being tougher on crime and criminals. Underpinning this unedifying political spectacle is the assumption that toughness is synonymous with effectiveness. Sweden’s liberal prison service shows this popular canard up for the lie it is. As writer Johann Hari wrote over ten years ago: “The choice is not between ‘tough’ and ‘soft’ it is between effective and useless. ‘Tough’ policies – put them in an empty cell and leave them to rot and rape each other – just don’t work. It is not those of us who want rehabilitation who are betraying the mugged grannies and the burgled primary schools – it is the [Michael] Howards and the [David] Blunketts, who choose facile posturing over policies that actually work.”

Speeding and masculinity

Speeding and masculinity
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
May 2012

Are you one of the overwhelming majority of drivers who admits to regularly breaking the speed limit? If so, you probably see it as a minor infraction of the law rather than a serious crime. Speeding is the motoring equivalent of a white lie – something a little bit naughty, something to gently mock your friends and family about, something to laugh at with Jeremy Clarkson as you watch Top Gear.

Speeding is so pervasive even the majority of ‘gatekeepers’ – magistrates, traffic police officers and a small group of driving instructors – admitted to the behaviour when interviewed for a 1997 Transport Research Laboratory study.

However, the basic facts suggest a very different reality. Speed is the main contributory factor in approximately a third of fatal car crashes in the UK, with the Department of Transport estimating that 4,187 deaths and serious injuries in 2009 were attributable to exceeding the speed limit of going too fast for the conditions. “Children are disproportionately represented as victims of speed”, notes Dr Claire Corbett, author of the 2003 book Car Crime. And while the popular image of speeding is someone hurtling down a motorway, arguably the greatest danger is speeding in urban areas. As Mike Penning, Conservative junior transport minister, said in 2010, the risk of death is four times higher when a pedestrian is hit at 40 mph than at 30 mph.

In addition, there is a close correlation between speeding and committing other motoring offences, with what Corbett calls ‘high speeders’ more likely to also drink drive, drive through amber and red lights and pull out from side roads without giving way to traffic, among other breaches. More generally, speeding likely causes more noise and environmental pollution, and more stress to other drivers and non-drivers on the road.

It is these uncomfortable facts that led Julie Spence, the outgoing head of Cambridgeshire police in 2010, to label speeding as “middle-class anti-social behaviour”. She went on to say that while anti-social behaviour is usually defined as rowdy youths or vandalism “driving without care or consideration for other road users is probably among the worst kind of anti-social behaviour in its truest since, because serious offenders can, and do, kill.” In terms of changing drivers’ behaviour, Corbett argues the difficulty “is that individual instances are only very infrequently negatively reinforced and the rarity of harm may help drivers to justify all other speeding occasions.”

Of course, we do not all have the same propensity to break the law behind the wheel. Men and women have very different relationships with cars. So while women often see cars as a way to reduce fear of crime and as a tool for independence, men often use cars to demonstrate their driving prowess and to project an image of success in life. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, research consistently shows men are substantially more likely to speed and be involved in fatal crashes. They account for 82 percent of speeding offences and 97 percent of dangerous driving convictions, according to 2005 Home Office figures. Importantly, men are also more likely to overestimate their own driving skills, with a 2005 Admiral poll revealing 65 percent of men thought they were better drivers than average. Only 47 percent of women thought the same. This male arrogance is especially acute among young men, a 2011 poll by Ireland’s AA Motor Insurance showing 9 in 10 men aged between 17 and 24 believed their driving skills were above average. Psychologists have a name for this – illusionary superiority. That is the cognitive bias that causes an individual to overestimate their positive qualities and underestimate their positive qualities.

Corbett lists personality traits such as “thrill-seeking, sensation-seeking, risk-seeking” along with “a sense of time urgency, competitiveness, ambition and alertness” as casual factors linked to speeding. Throw in the need to show competence, control, power and aggression and you have a fairly good summary of the mainstream masculinity that all boys are imbued with as they grow up. But while these traits are fine on a ride-on lawnmower or during a particularly strenuous Wii gaming session, deployed behind the wheel of a powerful car they can be a serious problem, with potentially very serious consequences.

People give a variety of reasons for speeding, including enjoyment of driving fast, that they are in a hurry, the dangers are exaggerated and social pressure to ‘keep up’. But it strikes me that only emergency life or death situations morally justify breaking the speed limit. Do you disagree?

Why does Rolf Harris make progressives turn into right-wing Tories?

Why does Rolf Harris make progressives turn into right-wing Tories?
by Ian Sinclair
2 October 2014

What is it about sex offenders that causes ostensively progressive and caring organisations and individuals to turn into right-wing Tories?

I ask because as soon as Rolf Harris’s sentence of five years and nine months in jail had been made public it was receiving criticism for being too lenient. “No sentence will give the victims back their innocence”, said David Peterson from the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service. “But if it were lengthened then society would be showing they are taking seriously the pain experienced by the victims.” The Guardian, supposedly the most radical voice in the mainstream press, noted the sentence was “if anything, lenient.” Meanwhile NIA and other women’s rights advocates retweeted the news that Harris’s sentence had been referred under the unduly lenient sentence scheme.

A number of facts and arguments suggest this righteous anger is misplaced. First, as the Telegraph noted, it’s important to realise “because the crimes were historic, having been carried out between 1969 and 1986, Harris had to be sentenced according to the more lenient law that was in place at the time.” As a 2011 NSPCC report into the sentencing of sexual offences against children notes, contrary to the widespread belief that sentences are too lenient in actual fact “they have been getting longer in recent years, and the prison population has been increasing.”

Second, as the NSPCC study suggests, those who are pushing for harsher sentences need to deal with the fact we already have the largest prison population in British history. Giving the UK’s more than 40,000 convicted sex offenders even longer prison sentences would massively increase the UK’s prison population when we already imprison more people per head of population than any other nation in Western Europe except Spain.

Third, The Guardian is surely right to argue “the damage he [Harris] did to some of his victims has for them amounted to a life sentence”. So what punishment is appropriate, according to those who think the given sentence was too lenient? A life sentence? The death penalty? Should Harris be forced to subsist on bread and water? Of course, no sentence can equal the harm Harris has caused. So surely we should stop obsessing about the punishment and start focussing on dealing with the problem in the most humane and effective manner possible?

Fourth, though many argue a tough sentence will act as a deterrent to other potential offenders there is little evidence to support this. “A sentencing framework that is based on deterring future crime by imposing heavy sentences on convicted offenders does not work”, the NSPCC report clearly states. For the deterrence to be effective the NSPCC notes the offender must 1) be aware of the current sentencing levels 2) think about the sentencing levels when they are considering offending 3) believe they have a good chance of being caught 4) believe that if they are caught the heavier sentencing policy will be applied and 5) be prepared to refrain from committing the crime. On the latter point, considering sex offenders carry out the most taboo criminal act that exists in society knowing that discovery will lead to them becoming social outcasts, it seem highly unlikely heavier penalties will be effective in changing their behaviour.

Speaking about Harris’s sentence, the NSPCC noted “the main thing is that his victims feel that they can now move on with their lives and that he is never allowed to harm anyone else.” Of course, public safety is crucial but is prison the only way this can be achieved? 84-year old Harris may well die in prison but the vast majority of sex offenders are released into the community. Therefore, it’s imperative we find ways to minimise the chances of re-offending when sex offenders are released.

David Wilson, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University and a former prisoner governor, has long championed circles of support and accountability as a possible solution. This method involves dealing with sex offenders in the community by building a small group of close support (the circle) around the offender. “We are a ready-made family”, one Canadian circle member told Wilson in 2004. “If they abused again they would feel they were letting us down.” Wilson notes circles have “been shown to reduce the predicted rate of reoffending by more than 70%, compared to the UK Prison Services’s sex offender treatment programme, which, on average, produces reductions of just 10%-15%.”

So in terms of historical comparison and context, deterrence, public safety, effectiveness and the practicalities of a heaving prison population, calling for harsher sentences for sex offenders simply does not make sense. Rather than being influenced by emotive media-driven campaigns encouraging outrage about lenient sentencing we need to rationally consider and implement the most effective and humane solutions so we can reduce re-offending.

As that unlikely humanitarian Winston Churchill once said “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.”

Interview with the Laura Janes on Youth Justice

Interview with Laura Janes on Youth Justice
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
December 2008

In his 1938 study English Juvenile Courts, Winifred Elkin referred to “the view so often expressed by the writers of letters to the Press, that the courts have become over-lenient.” Seven decades later it seems little has changed. The 2000 British Crime Survey (BCS), for instance, found that 75 per cent of respondents believed the courts treated young offenders too leniently.

In radical contrast, the latest report from the Howard League for Penal Reform – Punishing Children: A survey of criminal responsibility and approaches across Europe – finds that rather than being soft on young offenders, England and Wales actually has the harshest youth justice system in Europe. The study notes that with around 3,000 detained at any one time, England and Wales imprisons far more children than any other country in western Europe, and, at ten years, it has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in Europe.

After welcoming me in to her home in west London, Laura Janes, the Children’s Legal Team Leader at the Howard League and the report’s author, tells me about her recent visit to Belarus, a country that has the dubious distinction of often being referred to as ‘Europe‘s last dictatorship‘. “Even in a country like that they were very shocked about some of our practices in terms of the age of criminal responsibility”. In Belarus, she explains, “there is a maximum sentence for children, whereas we are quite content to give children indefinite sentences in this country, which is virtually unheard of in Europe.”

As a Solicitor who represents children in custody, 30-year old Janes works on telling cases that are rarely seen in a media typically more interested in heightening the general public‘s fear of youth crime. “I have one child who is in custody for cutting up some papers on her headmasters desk”, she relates. “She then threw a pair of scissors. Obviously it’s not good to throw a pair of scissors and thank goodness it didn’t hit anyone or hurt anyone. And it’s not admirable behaviour. But I don’t see that it’s behaviour that warrants custody.”

For Janes this incident is indicative of a culture that is too quick to criminalise children. “When it comes to children we take their liberty much less seriously than adults”, she says. “They have much less control over their lives and much less opportunity to object, and much less power and ammunition to fight back.”

Asked to explain the UK‘s punitive attitude to young offenders, Janes admits that the murder of James Bulger in 1993 produced a significant shift in government policy. However, she argues that this didn’t have to be the case, pointing to a similar incident in Norway at the time that produced a very different response. Janes is referring to the killing of five-year old Silje Raederg by two six-year old boys in the northern city of Trondheim in 1994 – an incident largely unknown in Britain. Whereas the trial of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables at Preston crown court attracted a baying mob clamouring for vengeance, the two Norwegian culprits were treated as victims rather than killers, and returned to school a couple of weeks after the event.

This welfare approach is mirrored throughout other Scandinavian countries and also in Italy, which now has just 500 people under the age of 18 in custody at any given time. But wouldn’t a more lenient youth justice system in Britain lead to a higher level of crime? “The overwhelming evidence is that a punitive approach certainly does not reduce crime. In fact it may be the reverse”, she forcefully replies.

“Lots of young men in adult prisons were children in children’s prisons”, Janes notes when I ask about the long-term consequences of Britain‘s harsh youth justice policy. “We are creating generations of criminalised people who have missed the opportunity to grow out of committing crime or to reshape their lives in a more positive and constructive way.” On an individual level, she argues “we are creating children who are utterly institutionalized, who effectively miss out on their childhood. That is something they will never be able to make up for developmentally.”

In October the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published a damning report on Britain‘s legal and social shortcomings regarding the welfare of children. Unfortunately there is little evidence to suggest our Government is taking the report’s 150 recommendations seriously. “Under Tony Blair we were very punitive, lots of ASBOs, ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’”, Janes says. “The idea was that under Gordon Brown we would be thinking more broadly about the welfare needs of young people”. She explains that this progressive change has yet to materialise, with the youth justice system currently being jointly managed by the punitive Ministry of Justice and the more welfare-based Department of Children, Schools and Families. “There is a very strong tension”, she points out. “You see that when you look at the recent Youth Crime Action Plan” which “is actually something that is very punitive in its tone.”

Janes herself would like to see the Government take a stronger welfare approach to youth justice. In addition she would like custody to be used only “in the absolute last resort”, the age of criminal responsibility to be raised significantly and the Government to fully comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. “What the public want to hear from the Government is that we are dealing with the core problems of these young people through investing in social services, mental health provision and constructive activity, so they are not committing crime.”

Returning to British attitudes towards children in comparison to the rest of Europe, most of all Janes says she “would like to see a culture that takes the liberty of children exceptionally seriously, which is what you see in other countries.”

Punishing Children: A survey of criminal responsibility and approaches across Europe is available from, priced £5.