Saturday, June 24, 2006

Crime and Punishment

To futher the intramural discussion on attitudes towards crime, guns and punishment I kicked off with this post, I submit this article on the British penchant for rehabilitative justice and it's sorry consequences:
The minimum five-year sentence for convicted pedophile Craig Sweeney has deepened the public's crisis of confidence in the British criminal justice system -- and stirred the government into pledging a 'sentencing review'. But while the mother of Sweeney's three-year-old victim spoke of wanting to "throttle the judge" who sentenced Sweeney, it is actually the liberalized system itself which may need "throttling". That's the point soon to be made by an explosive new film currently in production entitled Outlaw.

Nick Love's film, starring Sean Bean and Bob Hoskins, is designed to show the devastating consequences of a British justice system soft on criminals. The film focuses on five vigilantes who, "betrayed by their government and let down by the police", take matters into their own hands, meting out summary justice with baseball bats, knives and fists. What Charles Bronson's Death Wish character brought to cheering audiences in the 1970s, Love's Outlaw appears destined to repeat for contemporary audiences.

Outlaw is more than just another film for Love, who is himself a reformed teenage criminal and heroin user who claims to have been saved by the "short sharp shock" Tory policy of the 1980s. "I'm the living proof, if you like, that taking a hardline approach to young criminals works," says Love.

Love began writing the screenplay two years ago. At the time he suspected the British public were already beginning to lose patience with the government's liberalizing of criminal policies. He could not have realized how soon that patience might run out.

Since he came into office in 2001, the UK's attorney general, Peter Goldsmith, has exercised his power to refer sentences that he regards as "unduly lenient" back to the Court of Appeal no less than 698 times. Of these, 414 offenders had their sentences increased. This figure alone suggests that there is an inherent unwillingness on the part of judges to punish offenders with appropriate custodial sentences at a time when Britain's crime rates are among the highest in the developed world.

But what has really deepened the concern of the British people with the British justice system is the growing awareness of just what "do-gooder" liberal polices mean in practice. They include:

* automatic one-third discount of sentence for pleading guilty.
* automatic eligibility for parole after half the sentence is served.
* an early release scheme to aid the issue of over-crowded prisons.
* the supplanting of a "punishment that fits the crime" ethos with an emphasis on rehabilitation (i.e. rehabilitating the offender becomes a higher priority than punishment for the crime).

In the case of Craig Sweeney the problem was not the judge's life sentence with an 18-year minimum tariff. It was the "legalese" that served automatically to cut the sentence by one-third when Sweeney pleaded guilty. Yet, having abducted the three-year old girl from her own house and being caught red-handed with her in his car you have to wonder why a guilty plea mattered.

Alan Webster filmed himself raping a 12-week-old baby, an act simply too appalling for most of us to even contemplate. Even though the video footage of the crime was available to the court Webster's guilty plea meant an automatic one-third sentence discount for him, too. What on earth is going on here? Rapist Anthony Rice was released on parole only to strangle Naomi Bryant nine months later. But just why should parole halfway through a sentence be an automatic right?

Last week Judge Michael Byrne sentenced another pedophile to three years' community service after he pleaded guilty to possessing and distributing indecent images. The judge's reasoning for not passing a 12-month prison sentence was bizarre. It was, he claimed, because the custodial period made the defendant "ineligible for any of the help mechanisms available in prison". Again, just why should offender "help" trump due punishment for the crime? Some, it seems, have entirely lost sight of what the criminal justice system is for.

But without doubt one of the key elements leading the government, judiciary and parole boards toward a culture of early release and avoidance of custodial sentences is the issue of prison over-crowding. To pursue the simple expedient of building more prisons, a policy lately urged by the conservatives, would, it seems, be tantamount to an admission of defeat for the government's entire "modernizing" crime strategy.

Nick Love's Outlaw is not, as some will undoubtedly claim, a prescription for vigilantism on the streets. Rather, it is a stark warning of the perhaps inevitable consequences when a state fails to perform its central function: the protection of society and its law-abiding citizenry.

As Love's movie lead puts it, "If you want to spend the rest of your life being raped and bullied...and letting the pedophiles wander the playgrounds while you smile mutely and pay your taxes, then walk out the door." I suspect there won't be too many "walking out" on Outlaw however, unless it is because of its explicit content.

Love's film is set to further highlight how a society soft on criminals suffers when it makes the basic mistake of deeming pragmatic liberalizing policies - revealing a greater concern for the offender than for the victim and for the individual than for the community - a higher priority than justice.

The author has done an admirable job of highlighting the obvious lessons to be learned by the misguided philosophy of stressing rehabilitation over justice, and I can't really add much to it. Except maybe to wonder how such philosophies ever gained currency to begin with. Certainly the development of such notions are an historical aberration. What society can we point to in the past that held such a similar disdain for the role of punishment in the meting out of justice by its government? The idea is so basic and commonsensical that you have to tread some really dicey theoretical ground to arrive at such a counter-intuitive notion. You would expect such notions from overly-intellectualized and socially isloated academics, but the true mystery is how such notions could find themselves transplanted to fertile soil in the minds of the populace as a whole, who generally have few illusions about the moral redemptibility of criminals.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I think about half Europe's problems are overreacting to its hideous experience as a Judeo-Christian society.

One can easily understand why they dumped Christianity after its record. It is not so easy to understand why they then hared off after another form of extremism.

No one who has read the first 10 chapters of Hughes' 'The Fatal Shore' would suspect that 'justice' and punishment or retribution worked very well in England. And the less said about Germany, the better.

I think this is Europe's Golden Age, even England's. The more seeming golden years didn't reach much of the populace.

The question is, can Europe migrate to a moderate position before it has to resort to extremism to protect itself from Islam?

June 24, 2006 5:39 PM  
Blogger David said...

This doesn't really seem all that complicated. Most crime is committed by criminals and almost no serious crime is committed by someone with a previously clean record. If we look at just crime between strangers, the exceptions are few and far between. Therefore, the most effective way to reduce crime is to segregate criminals away from society.

The problem is that this is over broad and, in some cases, overly severe. This is the problem that "three strikes" laws are meant to solve: people who the law has determined are habitual criminals are kept in jail for long sentences. There is obvious room for line-drawing here, and each society must make its own political judgment about incarceration and less crime, on the one hand, and more lenient sentences and more crime, on the other.

A problem with the political solution is that the political class is better insulated from crime than the public at large. So the cost of more lenient sentences falls on the populace, not on those making the trade-off.

June 25, 2006 6:35 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


I was tempted to add as an afterthought to my question "I blame the Christians". Since you brought it up, I think there is something to it, even though a good deal of the support for these policies comes from secular people. I think that much of what we attribute to left-wing idealism is an outgrowth of Christian thought, particularly its egalitarianism, its pacifism and its emphasis on non-judgmentalism. You can look at left-leaning secularism as a reaction by people who inherited Christian idealism against the perceived hypocrisy of institutionalized Christianity and the way it has lived with or even promoted wars and injustices of the past, whether in the form of Christian nationalism or capitalism.

June 25, 2006 9:18 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I am amused by the thought of nonjudgmental Christians. Such were very scarce on the ground where I grew up, but I recognize they exist and, in a sense, are probably the fastest-growing religious sect in the U.S. (Not sure about Europe.)

I think, though, we can generalize my comment away from Christianity in Europe as doctrine and include non-Christian elements suffering from the same mistake: idealism.

Christian idealism has a long and violent history (iconoclasm, for example), while it's kind of difficult to think of any important non-Christian (or at any rate non-religious) idealism before the Age of Ideology, which coincided with but began somewhat earlier than the Age of Romanticism.

In that sense, idealism is an outgrowth of scientific rationalism -- the mistaken extrapolation of applying the idealism of Boyle's Law to human affairs.

I was raised on idealism, read Ideals magazine during trips to the dentist's office as a child and thought of idealism as a good thing for a long time.

Then I read the memoirs of various European Jews who had to survive the idealism of National Socialism and came to the conclusion that idealism if way worse than pragmatism.

This is a long way of saying David's right.

June 25, 2006 11:13 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Theodore Dalrymple addressed this same issue a few months ago, and serves to emphasize the TCS article that is the subject of this post.

Mr. Taranto, in his Best of The Web, often notes the unwitting disconnect in nearly all articles writing about crime and punishment: they all take the same puzzled position -- how to explain that imprisonment rates are rising while crime is falling?

Ummm ... simple. The criminals are in prison.

I have never heard the observation that politicians are insulated from the punishment (or lack thereof) decisions they make. I can't imagine why, as it has the ring of Truth.

IMHO, there is a not terribly long laundry list of crimes that deserve extended confinement. We can make a concession to the possibility that there may have been limits to perpetrators' ability to make correct decisions.

Meaning it is well within the realm of human decency to make confinement acceptably comfortable.

And long.

June 25, 2006 1:30 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Decency ought to be a reciprocal relation. Otherwise, it's hard to distinguish from being a chump.

I don't believe in rehabilitation, though I have (rarely) seen it happen among people I know.

This applies as well to drug rehab as crime rehab.

One question, seldom correctly posed, is how we evaluate the dangerousness of offenders.

Sneak thieves are not physically dangerous and, except rarely, don't steal much. But their likelihood of sneaking again is close to 100%.

I would favor life incarceration for them.

On the other hand, cold-blooded killers are physically very dangerous but not always likely to repeat.

I recall a case 30 years ago in which a man killed his mother. He disliked her. He was unlikely ever to dislike anyone else to that degree, and was -- from the point of view of those who think recidivism is the controlling factor -- eligible to be set free. He was not.

I also have often heard, from opponents of the death penalty, that the perp was not out to kill anyone. It was a 'botched robbery' or whatnot.

This, weirdly, is taken to mitigate the crime.

I take the opposite view. The man who is so irresponsible that he will take a pistol into a Stop N Rob for the chance to score fifty bucks, heedless of the possible outcomes, is almost the most dangerous of all criminals. I would execute anybody who kills for $50, under every circumstance.

June 25, 2006 5:22 PM  
Blogger M Ali said...

The biggest factor behind lenient sentencing isn't overly liberal attitudes towards crime but severe overcrowding of existing jails.

That's due in large part to the closing of mental health hospitals and the lack of drug rehab centres.

June 26, 2006 3:53 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

There are far more repeat offenders than reformed characters coming out of prison, but reform does occasionally happen.

Often that's because they find Jesus when in gaol, funnily enough.

Harry's comments about the relative 'danger' of murderers reminds me of comments made by John Mortimer. He claimed that murder was the easiest crime to forgive, since whereas burglers and bank robbers are impossible to sympathise with, we all have someone we'd like to bump off...

June 26, 2006 8:02 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home