Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Tough on crime, or just plain stupid?

There are some things in the world which you challenge at your peril, for doing so makes you a 'soft lefty liberal' who will bring the country to destruction. Two spring to mind, drugs and prisons. The policies in both those areas can only be described as stupid, yet they're immune to attack because anyone who would dare suggest an alternative would automatically be seen as somewhere beneath rapists in the eyes of Daily Mail readers.

With drugs the problem is that prohibition doesn't work, with prison's the problem is that they often harden offenders rather than rehabilitate them.

Behind bars means out of trouble, but what about when released?

If someone was creating a health service from scratch based on our current prison set-up it would look a little like this.

+ve - Takes people off the streets in order to protect the public.

-ve - Huddles all the sick together in one place to catch each other's disease. Based on the fact that at the moment we are sending offenders with minor offences into the prison system where they quickly learn the tricks of the trade from 'harder' inmates and often end up in prison gangs.

-ve - Rather than treating the illness they are instead left to fester, whilst their frustration at being locked up makes their illness far worse than it was. Rehabilitation in the prison system is shoddy at best, despite the fact that 82% of prisoners can't read and write to the standard of an 11-year old. Many of our prisoners are illiterate, addicted or insane, yet they receive a pitiful amount of support. This isn't about their 'human rights', its about the fact that you can't expect these people to stop committing crime when they're released if they can't read and write, how would they fit back into society?

-ve - After an arbitrary period of time, throw the patients back onto the streets, free to spread their infection around the community once again as they haven't been cured from the previous illness. A year after release 47% of prisoners re-offended, rising to 73% in young men. We aren't helping solve crime, we're just hardening criminals who might have been able to change their ways previously. In Denmark, the figure is 27%, we'll get round to how later.

So, clearly, prison doesn't work. We're pumping money into a system which is fundamentally broken. Labour may have lowered crime rates, but to hark back to what Tony Blair said in 1997, we tackled crime, but we completely forgot to solve the causes of crime.

So what's the alternative?

Simply put, tackle the problems that make the offenders turn to crime, rather than mindlessly locking them up for it. Now I can hear the cries of outrage already, 'Why should we help these criminals, these rapists and drug dealers, why should they be helped at all?'. Because, if you don't want them reverting to old tricks when they get out, you have to. About 70% of prisoners have 2 or more diagnosable mental illnesses, and 10% are severely mentally ill. Locking them up will do nothing to help them, and will do far more damage to people who really need help.

Of course there is still a place in society for jail for violent offenders and people who pose a serious risk to the public, but they don't make up the bulk of our prison population. For the vast majority the alternative is far cheaper and far more effective. Give them a long community service sentence at the same time as attending education classes or drug/mental health treatment as necessary. Fight the real causes of their criminality, rather than just hiding it behind bars.

There will be those yelling at the computer that I'm just a namby pamby liberal who would let paedophile's (they're always the criminal chosen for shock and awe tactics) roam the streets. I'm too soft you may say. Call it soft, call it liberal, whatever you call it, there's no denying it works better than what we do at the moment.

You might get some kind of pleasure from knowing that a criminal is behind bars, but I bet that sense of pleasure soon disappears when you're the one who is attacked by a reoffender.

I'd rather have a prison system that works, not one that just makes people think its working. Given community service and treatment people are 50% less likely to re-offend than those who go to prison, that's a system that works.

Who was the last person to halve prison numbers? A young, namby-pamby, soft liberal type no doubt? Actually, his name was Winston Churchill, and crime fell as a result.

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