Sunday, 28 June 2009

Sicko and the Gloomycons

Just for fun. From the Guardian. Where else?

An invitation to reoffend

Libby Brooks

The short-term prison sentence is a disaster for offenders and society. But there are alternatives.

It was with a heavy heart that I read of Alan Johnson's pledge this week to revive the state crusade against antisocial behaviour. Our new home secretary was concerned that the government had been "coasting" on the issue. The prospect of more rhetoric about yob culture leaves me weary.

‘Weary’ yes, but not, I suspect, bleeding to death on a pavement somewhere, or sobbing your aged rather than heavy heart out and hoping your angina won’t kick off as you stare at a lifetime’s personal possessions smashed or missing: especially the silver framed photo frame that once held a favourite and irreplaceable picture of your late husband of fifty years, perhaps?

But it's further troubling because another spike in Asbo use will inevitably cause an increase in one of the most individually corrosive, socially useless and economically indefensible elements of our criminal justice system: the short-term prison sentence.

‘Economically indefensible’ used in the Guardian is about as convincing as using feckless to describe an all-mime episode of Father Ted.

Antisocial behaviour orders, the high noon of New Labour's respect agenda, with their absurdist conditions (not to wear a hat, not to utter a particular expletive in public, not to approach a certain bridge when suicidal) seem to me designed to be breached.

Authority’s just so…silly, isn’t it? I mean, using the power of the State to threaten people who speak or behave in such as way as suggests they might violate some bourgeois moral rule. I mean, that’s so mediaeval, right?

So kids let’s just dig out those Union flags, shave our heads, put on those cherry-red doc Martens and hang around some blues bars and mosques, yeah? No problemo.

And, in a dangerous legal blurring, breaches of this civil instrument are dealt with by criminal sanction,

I’ll bet you’re really hot on protesting against how our Civil Service enforces European Union ‘guidelines’ as criminal offences dear, aren’t you?

…often leading to brief periods in custody.

‘Brief’, I know. Tragic.

Currently, 65% of Britain's prison population is serving sentences of 12 months or less.

Take a walk in these shoes, darling. Longer, tougher sentences, handed out to more (you should excuse the expression) criminals in larger, nastier, and more numerous prisons is what we need.

If Asbos offer a fast track for young, grossly disadvantaged…

Bingo! ‘Grossly disadvantaged’ is the money quote.

Because when some toe-rag slips a screwdriver into your door frame and nicks off with the pension money and some other unconsidered trifles, it’s disadvantage that propels him into your home – not any conception of moral agency, free will, or wickedness. The psychoanalysts and anthropological relativists dealt with those old superstitions yonks ago. Clouting the undeserving possessors of cash and valuables is an illness.

…men into the prison system, then short-term custody traps them in a revolving door of offence and reoffence.

Gotta dance! Gotta sing! Gotta find my way onto somebody’s premises ‘cos no-one told me about the fifty-lots of support organisations and funds and benefits I can claim on my way out of jail! Just haddta get out into the sunlight and find me some wrinkly old fart or single mother to relive of the burden of property.

I’m not sick; I just want a drug!

This is not an argument against prison.

Prove it.

It is an argument against the costly, superficial palliative of ­locking away…

Thought not. It’s not a palliative for the truly vulnerable in society, such as the women, pensioners and absent taxpayers who tend to fund criminals’ free-form socialism, but who don’t have to worry about such things while said crims are banged up. It’s not a palliative because it’s the cure.

…the most vulnerable...

How bloody vulnerable is a twenty-year-old man with a hunting knife when he’s surrounded by peaceful commuters or booze-dulled night-clubbers?

… among us...

But they aren’t among us if they’re locked in F-Block, which is an actual argument in favour of prison, as distinct from your more virtual kind…

…for periods of time that render rehabilitation meaningless.

True enough. I expect it’d take much longer than any month or so to break the mental, emotional, and pscycho-chemical habits of years or decades or even a lifetime. I mean, if you truly believe that therapy, neuro-linguistic reprogramming and so on can take substance abusers and wife abusers and remould them into decent citizens when it takes twelve whole years at school to teach many healthy and unabused children to read and write badly, then it’s likely to take quite a long time to get results from your vulnerables.

Might I suggest a minimum sentence of two years for any act of violence or house-breaking?

Asbo refuseniks are only a minor constituency of a group that, it bears repeating, makes up more than half of all prisoners.

I wonder whether the prison shortage and the liberal attitudes of many magistrates might have something to do with the shortness of sentences, rather than the ‘pettiness’ of their crimes?

We're not talking about serious, violent criminals but shoplifters…

I’d like £100–worth of your favourite possessions please from your home or some of your work tools from your place of employment taken at a time of my choosing without your prior agreement.

…the homeless…

Lots of ‘free’, i.e. State-funded accommodation in this country. This sort of homelessness isn’t a curse from Heaven or Hell: it’s the name for one consequence of bad decisions taken by human beings. You have to be pretty damn gross to get chucked out of homeless hostel.

…and those who petty-thieve to fund a habit.

So that’s alright then. Now it may be that drug dependencies or alcoholism do to some extent erode free will to such an extent that some or all rules will be ignored by addicts in pursuit of their substance of choice. They will, you seem to imply, be prepared to do anything, pretty much short of violence, to fund their habit. Why the hell should the rest of us put up with the dirt and the smell and the expense of time of reporting crimes to the police for statistical purposes? Those particular policemen can’t chase up quite so many truly violent criminals if they’re taking Crazy McShaky off to the drying-out cells or dragging a shrieking Tracksuitina O’Giro to the patrol car as she scatters obscenity-larded assertions of her ‘rights’ to everyone in earshot and dropping ruined and now unsellable shoplifted Next underwear into the gutter. What price is there on peoples’ fear about their lost security because you believe that these shambling zombies should be treated the same as philology dons or the Spanish ambassador?

According to the latest briefing from the Prison Reform Trust, published tomorrow , about half have mental health needs, while a quarter are drug- or alcohol-dependent.

Wow, The Prison Reform Trust, huh? I don’t suppose you’d expect much of a throw away the key kind of argument from that particular body, to quote Wikipedia: They work closely with the campaign group SmartJustice who promote alternatives to custody. Alternatives to custody actually means 'a life of crime.'

Next week, Meat is yummy, nutritious, and fun to find: a report on game hunting and gralloching by The Vegetarian Society.

These are problematic individuals who undoubtedly un-civilise our streets.

The common sort travel around in baseball caps and hoodies and trash or remove other peoples’ property: sometimes over their dead or battered bodies; sometime leaving them intimidated, permanently fearful and ashamed of having handed their pensions or wages or benefits over at knife-point. The other less obvious sort are no less obnoxious or guilty of this state of affairs and they are the ones who put the hoodies on the street in the first place, and who campaign relentlessly to keep them there, or briefly in our homes or workplaces for redistributionist purposes.

But the sanction and support…

They don’t need weasel-word ‘support.’ They need to have it proven to them that crime doesn’t pay: that trials work and prison awaits convicted criminals and that it’ll be no picnic inside. Perhaps after having spent long months contemplating the unlovely bulge of a cellmate’s snoring form in the bunk above, and fearful of further sentences and full of despair that this particular stretch is not going to be halved and halved again for ‘good behaviour’, perhaps then they might be ready to open their tiny minds to the possibility of living and acting in a non-criminal way when they do, eventually get out of jail. Under these circumstances and, I suspect under these circumstances alone, might problematic individuals be prepared to allow thoughts of not thieving into their heads.

…they need can never be provided by the present response of aimless deterrence.

Deterrence is indeed aimless, strictly speaking, because it’s intended to have a scatter-gun kind of effect. You know: all those who rob or mug or intimidate people on the street or at home have a good chance of spending quite a long time in the big house making nice to Tattooed Harry and His Big Bad Friend; irrespective of class, faith, sex, sexual orientation, victim group of choice or length of tadger. The nick is for everyone who decides that other peoples’ bodies or possessions are footballs and their homes and public spaces are sport stadiums.

Short sentences barely give the authorities time to assess an inmate's needs.

And that’s the crux. This is all about the criminals and their needs. It’s the felon-centred approach that is having such a strikingly similar successes rate as child-centred education.

But even a limited spell in custody does enduring damage – the fracture of family bonds,

Actually, I think you’ll find that the ‘families’ in involved here either need to be broken up and dispersed for the sake of the children, or are thieving and benefits-trawling institutions which need to be broken up and dispersed for the sake of the children and everyone else in society.

… loss of accommodation,

Trust me, dear, there are plenty of piggy-eyed private landlords out there eager to put these people up in their hovels in the sure and certain knowledge that the Housing Benefit will be generous under the new Local Housing Allowance scheme. Under 25s do have particular problem here because they’re only entitled to a much smaller Single Room Rate, and can only get typically half to two thirds the Housing Benefit that would fund a flat for single adults or even childless young couples. But:

A) Boo hoo, and

B) Oh.

Boo hoo again.

Actually, landlords have a tendency to keep lets open for people who’ve gone to jail for short periods as they know that Housing Benefit is actually quite a secure income source compared with, say; private sector wages in Mister Brown’s exciting and constantly-changing wealth-generating economy. Housing Benefit can be paid to remand prisoners for quite some time. See paragraph 5 of this lovely web page.

… the stigmatising record on future job applications.

I know, I know. It’s such a bore having to tell the HR lady at Sainsbury’s that you once kicked a supermarket guard in the pills during a vodka-finding missing in your late teens, or that some old iffy-hearted gimmer popped their clogs at 1 AM when you paid a moonlight visit is search of exchange goods for a local pharmacy. They always look at you funny, and you rarely get the job. If only someone had told me that crime doesn’t pay earlier, a chap might have stuck to his school books a bit more, or at least not tried to stick to other peoples’ stuff.

Somebody serving less than 12 months is not even allocated a parole officer, and is cast back into the community with a derisory grant of £46 to tide them over until their benefits kick in two weeks later. If this is not an invitation to reoffend, I don't know what is.

I’d guess that being told it’s not really their fault and being aware that there is a huge and active State machinery of welfare and unjudgmental ‘support’ to fall back on once they hit the streets and the people on them might be kind of an invitation, too.

I mean, if local authorities had more, nicer, and better-furnished accommodation available at the drop of a sentence for ‘offenders’ to move into straight away, that’d take some of the sting out of prison and punishment, and that’s bound to, er, make the consequences of committing a crime more scary. Innit.

There is an alternative. Community sentencing is still underused, but its efficacy is increasing. By the last tally, reconviction rates for those sentenced to under 12 months were almost twice those of offenders given alternative sentences for similar offences.

Did you also know that the topic of penal reform generates 63% of spurious or misleading statistics; coming in a close third to climate change and government employment figures?

Last year, 55,771 people successfully completed community payback sentences, which translates into over eight million hours of labour benefiting local areas.

I wonder if this is true? It is a truly good idea forcing convicted felons who aren’t insanely or irregularly violent clearing wasteland or cleaning up fouled social housing and the like, but I wonder how many mere thieves who only steal to fund a habit are entirely trustworthy. How closely is their behaviour monitored? And if they are back in their former accommodation and their old neighbourhoods, how do their silent, unsupported victims feel about that? Stigmatised at all, do you think, or worse?

Still, hand-wringing over socially excluded minor offenders gains little traction with a government that is all too aware of the boost its perceived light touch on nuisance crime gives to the BNP.

To hell with the victims, past, present, and future of minor crimes – the fascists are coming!

See how the different campaigns in the culture wars all end up joining up with each other? What’s truly evil about ‘nuisance crime’ is that it helped close to a million adult human beings vote for the jackbooted hordes of, ah, people in suits, at the Euros. Forget Granny’s neighbour’s tearful phone call at 11 PM one Saturday night, it’s the fuehrer with the eagle’s head and the lion’s body that should be sneaking into your nightmares.

Which is why the campaign Make Justice Work has been smart in commissioning the first independent cost-benefit analysis of short-term sentencing versus ­community alternatives.

The results are astonishing. It estimates that the country would have saved almost £1bn had drug-using offenders in custody for 12 months or less been given residential treatment under community sentencing. The annual savings for the first six years after conviction would have been £60m-£100m. Compare the £2.3bn price tag of the latest prison building programme.

The full analysis will be released on Monday, at a launch set to be attended by Dominic Grieve, the shadow justice minister. His junior, Edward Garnier, has spoken positively about community sentencing, though the Conservatives' latest prison policy paper fixates alarmingly on the need for recognisable ­uniforms for offenders working locally.

So the Right wing of the political class agrees with a section of its enormous Left wing, and we sociocons are supposed to jump up and down cheering?

To be fair to the present Tory party (and being fair to the present Tory party translates as ‘not horsewhipping the regional officers around the county town or shooting the Shadow Cabinet on sight’), there may actually be a useful cleavage between jail for the violent ones and the work-party and curfew for the others – it seems on the face of it to be so sensible that its might even resemble something actually conservative. Except…

Who, exactly, will be making the decisions about whom to jail and who to put to work?

The Probation Service? Judges? Victim Support, maybe? Nah.

Given the apparent inevitability of a Tory administration next year, it's important to interrogate their policies in advance. Jonathan Aitken, who headed a report on prison reform for the Centre for Social Justice in March, believes that the party is more willing than ever to consider alternatives to custody, though he notes that progressive thinking does not always transfer into government.

‘…progressive thinking does not always transfer into government’ – does this perhaps mean ‘Once you’ve got to read the court reports and look at crime scene photos and skim the post-mortems on a daily basis, a Home Secretary might reluctantly decide to do something a little different from the very strict and not at all malleable pre-election guideline/aspirations/bullet-point hints that some naïve individuals took to be election pledges in that old manifesto thingy?

I hope so.

The Scottish parliament is putting through legislation to embed a presumption against custodial sentencing below six months – a genuinely radical step that neither Conservatives nor Labour are yet willing to subscribe to.

This would be one of those scorched-earth, pre-Tory government anti-personnel devices the soon to be slaughtered Left are hoping to insert into the body politic.

As Roma Hooper, of Make Justice Work, says: "Short-term sentencing is a waste of money and also disingenuous to victims." Because it's nobody's ­justice if your bag-snatcher is back on your estate after three months inside, having received zero ­addiction treatment, just sharper criminal tutoring.

Hear, hear. Let’s start with that three months inside bit and work on from there, shall we?

Thanks to the variously gloomy and despairing social conservatives Dumb Jon and Ranting Stan who inspired my tentatively optimistic reply.

‘Optimistic,’ because we’ve got to keep fighting and tearing the social Left down, one miserable prejudice at a time. 'Tentative' because there are a lot of people like Libby Brooks in the ironically-named criminal justice system to deal with.

PS, Bertie Humbug's Rantoamtic. New blog on the block.


James Higham said...

Do you think Britain's getting more violent? :)

Roue le Jour said...

Crowd rises to its feet, clapping, whistling and giving whoops of joy. Children are hoisted onto shoulders and tears stream down the cheeks of the womenfolk.

Well done. Take the rest of the weekend off.

North Northwester said...

Do you think Britain's getting more violent?
If headmasters are expelling infant school kids for violence, yes. and yes, it jolly well is.

Welcome Roue le Jour, and thanks for your comments.
Alas, I cannot take the rest of the weekend off as the forces of darkness work even on Sundays, and they must be stopped.

PS, that wasn't irony, was it?


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