Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Knife attacks surge 73% as amnesty fails - Britain - Times Online

My more conventionally right-wing comrades in the blogosphere will take offence at Chris Eades' observation, reported here, that the Government has an "implausible view that increased sentence length will have a deterrent effect." They will feel no sentence is too long for a thug who offers violence to fellow citizens. They have a point. At the risk of offending them, Mr Eades has a point too.

I worked with criminals briefly, but for long enough to learn that they are characterised by tattoos and a lack of foresight. Perhaps the two are connected? Tattooing the name of a girl on your arm when the pain from the needles is likely to last longer than the relationship demonstrates a lack of foresight.

I digress. My point is they live in, and for, the moment.

We - thoughtfully considering appropriate penal policy - would consider the consequences of being caught. They don't, because they think it isn't going to happen. That's not irrational. Statistically, they are being much more rational in their "professional" lives than - say - when they play the National Lottery.

Rational humans assume that, while a thief will risk a year in jail, he will "think again" about risking ten. To think again, you must have thought the first time. The fact is, he hasn't thought about jail at all. Time after time, I interviewed criminal clients who could hardly focus on preparing their defence, such was their sense of grievance about their "bad luck".

Most criminals are young men, between the ages of 15 and 30. They have the sense of invulnerability that only a young man can have. If you really want to affect their behaviour, you have to increase their sense of risk. A young man confidently walking across a broad bridge, doesn't care if the ravine below is twenty or twenty thousand feet deep. You need to make it a rickety bridge. And even then many young men will want to bungee jump.

PC David Copperfield at the Policeman's Blog (always an excellent read) has written amusingly and at length about the bureaucratic burdens of his work. There is little doubt that the police are currently incentivised to pluck "low-hanging fruit" to produce good statistics for the Home Office. A painstaking attempt to detect a crime with no immediately obvious perpetrator will produce - at best - one conviction. That translates to a feeling on the part of victims and criminals that serious police effort at detection is unlikely. How long has it been in Britain since anyone seriously expected more from the police after a burglary than a "crime number" for the insurance company?

If PC Copperfield and his colleagues could break free from the statistical chains that bind them and focus on detection of crime, there is a chance they could affect even a cocky young man's sense of risk. I believe that's why - to the surprise of criminologists - "zero tolerance" policies for even minor offences have reduced serious crime in New York and other cities. Subconsciously, criminals have concluded that the risk of detection is higher, the more often they have been detected - however trivial the crime.

The trouble is that higher sentences, like new laws, are cheap ways for Ministers to get good publicity and to seem tough. For a politician it's a "no-brainer." If a Home Secretary were stupid enough, politically, to focus on genuine improvements in the efficiency of the police force, he would have a long, hard slog for nothing. Why for nothing? Because the turnover of ministers is so rapid that any long term project is ultimately a gift to your successor. In a functioning democracy that might even, God forbid, be a political opponent.

Knife attacks surge 73% as amnesty fails - Britain - Times Online


Deogolwulf said...

Well put. No doubt, to those with little moral scruple but with some decent measure of foresight, a sanction such as prison may act as a deterrent in the absence or failure of moral scruple. But, as you rightly point out, to those with little foresight or moral scruple, which describes our mindlessly violent criminals, a large sanction in the future appears small in prospect to a small sanction in the near-present, and thus the distant prospect of prison is of little deterrence to such persons.

I see the main purpose of prison as taking such persons out of society. Naturally, this does not much address their criminality. That is another matter; but I do object to the view, quite often espoused, that we ought to do little or nothing about the symptoms, as it were, of this criminality until we have found its cure, a view that presents us not only with a false dilemma, but also with perhaps a false hope.

On a lighter note, I wish you a fine holiday!

ContraTory said...

This analysis is essentially correct. Imprisonment is not much of a disincentive to committing crime of a "nuisance" nature where the terms imposed are relatively short, even if offenders thought about the consequences of being caught, which as you say, they do not. Extending the terms of imprisonment for various common crimes might make a few offenders think twice, but not the majority. The important point is that by increasing prison terms for such crimes, the punishment becomes disproportionate. Long custodial terms should be reserved for dangerous criminals whose incarceration is for our protection, not for "deterrence".

As for the "quality control" data collection that diverts too much Police manpower away from doing the job, this applies to HM Court Service, the Crown Prosecution Service and every other agency involved in the Criminal Justice system, too. And the Government wonders why it is presiding over a complete shambles.

Vote Franco (fdm) said...

Yes, that's what I didn't like about what Mr Eades said. At the end of the day, punishment is about punishing the offence.

Yes it is possible that a punishment might have a deterrent effect, but I've always been skeptical that it does, at least for the class of criminals you refer to. As you say they don't think ahead and account for the fact they may be caught.

The point about punishment, is once you need to invoke it, by definition it has failed as a deterrent. However, punishment isn't about deterrence, it's about retribution. Of course it needs to be proportionate and relevant, but proportional and relevant to the crime, not to the perpetrator.

For me, it's no good saying this punishment doesn't work, because the crime is still being committed. I say is the punishment appropriate for the crime? If it is, then there's nothing wrong with it. If it isn't it needs adjusting.

Miss Carnivorous said...

Some strange fruit may enjoy the regimented structure of prison life. Young men have for thousands of years gone to war. In this modern era men in Western countries rarely get to engage in raping and pillaging. Crime is a way to make up for the lack. Prison gives the militaristic structure as well. That's why many men end up back in prison after release, they really don't know what to do with themselves otherwise, being prey to their need for an adrenaline rush.