Rebutting Tory attack lines: crime and punishment
by Ian Sinclair
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.