George Monbiot, Middle Class liberals, and crime

When I was a child, the steelworks in my hometown, Corby, closed down. Corby had always had a 'rough' reputation as a town full of Scottish, Irish and Serbian immigrants. There were parts of the town that no one in their right mind, and even a few of those who were not, would go near.

Still, the core of the place would be recognisable to anyone from a prosperous industrial town anywhere. The welfare club had a bowling green, the catholic club was open after well attended masses, men often wore ties and rings when they went out.

Crime, as such, was viewed in a double way. People almost universally wanted tough criminal sanctions, particularly women; yet many looked the other way at property offences and saturday-night fights. The succession of tough pubs we ran after the steelworks mostly closed and my dad had to get a new job confirmed me in the growing childish impression that an awful lot of nonsense is talked and written about crime.

I thought that even when, ten years later, my little sister, at the age of 12 or so, took to playing a game with her pals at school of 'where would the next druggie's head turn up?' (because they took to beheading each other) and when gangs of girls started beating people up, in one case she remembers to murder.

Of course, the welfare club had been turned into a sleazy nightclub full of pounding, numbing music that accustomed people to the agency work they would be wasting themselves with in the weekdays, and drugs had run rampant. There was no easy solution, though.

I retain that idea however that tough sanctions based upon proper prisons, so long as a fair trial and appeal process is in operation, are fundamental to a decent society. Perhaps the exaggerated fear of the middle classes for the police, and then their craven defiance of social norms when they think, drunk in their twenties, that no-one is watching, is behind the conceptions that 'prison doesn't work' and 'the police are all bad'.

So I was appalled to read an old rehashed canard turned out by George Monbiot--quelle surprise--in the Guardian today. I can summarise such pieces in a few sentences;

"people are still being sent to prison even though crime is falling"
"this country jails more people than any democracy except the USA"
"the prisons are overcrowded anyway"
"There must be some better way".

Let's just set those prejudices against some facts. This country sends fewer people to jail for robbery than Canada, Germany, Australia, Poland and the USA. In 2001, there were 0.6 prisoners per robbery.

Germany, Poland and the USA all have more prisoners per murder than the UK.

Overall, when it comes to prisoners per crime--a better measure than prisoners per head--this country is behind. Seven years ago, the UK was well below the EU average.

Now, nearly a decade on, the figures are not substantially different even though it is estimated that the British Crime Survey under-reports crimes by some three million a year.

So, if anything, we jail fewer people per crime than anyone else. We have also substantially privatised prisons, so that the interests of prison officers are in as calm and relaxed a prison population as possible; and we have, as a society, systematically underspent on prisons. It is also the case that automatic reductions of sentence of between a tenth and a third are available for timely guilty pleas; judges are increasingly loth to send people to prison; and a huge range of non-prison sentences exists.

There are serious problems with the funding of criminal justice. Criminal lawyers should be paid much better, prosecutions should be quicker, and the CPS should be properly staffed, amongst other things.

However, every single 'fact' about crime suggested by George Monbiot except that relating to absolute levels of incarceration is, as far as I can see, wrong.

I wish people would wake up and see that a sensible approach to community protection doesn't mean surveilling and criminalising everything, nor in being a friend to vicious anti-social people at the drop of a hat. It just means drawing the right lessons and not giving up on the surrounding culture and its agents of influence in the police. It also means putting bad people away more often than we do.

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