Tag Archives: Johann Hari

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 http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Publications/Factfile.

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

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.”

Countering David Aaronovitch’s ‘humanitarianism’ on Iraq

Countering David Aaronovitch’s ‘humanitarianism’ on Iraq
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
March 2013

Along with fellow journalists Nick Cohen, Johann Hari and Christopher Hitchens, ten years ago David Aaronovitch was an important liberal advocate for war on Iraq.

Writing for the Independent and then the Guardian, curiously Aaronovitch’s changing reasons for supporting the invasion closely followed the Government’s own shifting justifications. So when Tony Blair started pushing the humanitarian argument in early 2003, Aaronovitch was right behind him. “I was never in favour of this war mainly because of the threats of terrorism of WMDs. Getting rid of Saddam (and therefore the myriad afflictions of the Iraqi people) was enough”, he wrote in April 2003.

When, you might wonder, did Aaronovitch have his damascene conversion to ridding the world of Hussein by foreign invasion? Certainly not on 8 August 2002 when he said of removing Saddam, “But we can’t… Wars are very particular things and civilised nations can’t just have them when they feel like it or when they feel they have run out of options”. Later the same month Aaronovitch seemed to cry out for some evidence that would justify the invasion: “But war? Show me the evidence first. Don’t just tell me you have it, tell me what it is.” The title of this article? I’m All For War On Iraq – But Only If I See The Evidence That Saddam Is A Threat. Strange words and title, I’m sure you agree, for a man solely interested in toppling the Iraqi dictator.

It was this magpie-like moral positioning that led to the famous April 2003 letter in the Guardian asking “When is your walking mid-life crisis of a columnist David Aaronovitch and all the other liberal solipsists, going to realise that this war is not about them or their delicate consciences?”

Ten years and around one million Iraqi dead later and you might think Aaronovitch would be a little sheepish about his enabling role in the slaughter. If so, you’d be mistaken. His performance at last month’s Huffington Post debate on Iraq was a master class in the kind of denial of reality that he ridicules conspiracy theorists for in his book Voodoo Histories.

“What you’ve got to try and remember when you deal with Saddam Hussein, is that you are not dealing with sodding Mubarak”, he explained to the audience at Goldsmiths. “Mubarak was a bad and authoritarian man but there are scales and scales of authoritarianism and Saddam Hussein was right down the Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin end of the scale.” Because of his “terrible blend of external aggression and internal repression”, foreign invasion was the only way to get rid of Hussein, Aaronovitch maintained in his subsequent Times column.

Of course, equating Hussein with the leader of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union at the height of its power would likely lead to a very poor mark in a GCSE history exam. And as veteran journalist Philip Knightly pointed out in the Guardian in 2001, demonising the enemy’s leader is a key stage of Western media disinformation campaigns to prepare a nation for conflict. However, if you can wade through Aaronovitch’s slurry of propaganda, there is an important and popular argument to refute here – that a foreign invasion was the only way to topple Hussein.

So what were the facts of the ground in 2003 when Tony Blair and Aaronovitch were attempting to persuade the British public to support the invasion of Iraq? First, let’s look at Hussein’s external aggression. As late as February 2001 US Secretary of State Colin Powell was saying Hussein “has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbours.” US dissident Noam Chomsky agreed with Powell in 2003, noting it “is well known” that “Iraq is militarily and economically the weakest country in the region.”

How about his internal repression within Iraq? By 2002 Amnesty International was counting the number of prisoners of conscience and executions in “scores”. “Brutal as Saddam Hussein’s reign had been, the scope of the Iraqi government’s killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention”, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch noted. “By the time of the March 2003 invasion, Saddam Hussein’s killing had ebbed”.

As these examples illustrate, what is missing from Aaronovitch’s disingenuous humanitarian argument is any specificity about time. Yes, Hussein was a serious threat to his neighbours and population in the 1980s – when the US and UK were backing him to the hilt – but by 2003 his power had been significantly reduced by 12 years of sanctions and no-fly zones. Speaking in August 2002 Sharif Ali Bin AlHussein, an exiled opposition leader with the Iraqi National Congress, confirmed this analysis. Hussein “is very weak” and the Iraqi military is “ready to rise up”, CNN reported AlHussein as saying.

These basic facts are important but they are something of a side issue. As the historian of nonviolent revolution Gene Sharp told me when I asked him about the humanitarian argument for invading Iraq, “It has been shown repeatedly that there are alternative ways of overthrowing dictators.” To support his assertion Sharp pointed to the people power of the Arab Spring. Certainly the removal of the western-backed dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak by their own populations proved to many the fallacy of deposing Hussein by foreign invasion. But as Aaronovitch feels Mubarak isn’t fit to shine Hussein’s shoes when it comes to repressive rule, how about the example of Chileans ousting US-backed Augusto Pinochet in 1989? Still not enough “internal repression” for you, David? How about Iranians toppling the Shah in 1979, a regime with the worst human rights record of any country in the world, according to Amnesty International in 1976? In East Timor, Amnesty International reported that Indonesian troops had killed 200,000 people between their 1975 invasion and 1989. 200,000 people was about one third of the total population of East Timor. Despite this mass murder a largely nonviolent mass movement eventually managed to eject the Indonesian forces, and declared independence in 2002.

All these examples appear in Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, a landmark study published last year that analyses 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900-2006. Rather than external military invasions, authors Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that nonviolent campaigns were twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objective. More importantly in terms of countering Aaronovitch’s focus on the “scale of authoritarianism”, the book notes “Nonviolent campaigns succeed against democracies and non-democracies, weak and powerful opponents, conciliatory and repressive regimes.”

“It’s not the nature of the opponent that determines the effectiveness of the [rebellion’s] strategy”, Stephan explains in an interview. “It’s much more some of these internal, intrinsic characteristics of the movement.”

Of course, we can not be certain that Iraqis would have been able to overthrow Saddam Hussein. But, as Chomsky argued just before the 2003 invasion, if the murderous sanctions regime had been lifted “there’s every reason to believe that they’ll get rid of him the way that others have.”