Tough on crime or just a smokescreen?

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By Dr Anna Kotova, Lecturer in Criminology 
School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham

Both the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, recently made headlines by announcing a “tough on crime” approach to tackling criminal offending. Their promises include 10,000 new prison places and tougher sentences for people who committed serious offences. The goal is, to quote Ms Patel, for ‘criminals to be afraid’.

In one way, of course, it does. Prison removes people who have committed criminal offences from society, and are generally good at keeping people inside: there were less than ten escapes in 2015-2017 – however, this is a painfully simplistic view of prisons. Firstly, not all people in prison are a danger to society. It should be noted that in 2018, over 80% of women in prison were there for non-violent offences. Secondly, the protective function of prison is only short-term. Most prisoners in this country will at some point be released into the community, and reoffending rates suggest that they are extremely likely to commit crimes again, with figures putting the likelihood at around 50%. Those on shorter sentences of less than 12 months are even more likely to re-offend.

There is also no evidence to support the view that making criminals ‘afraid’ of punishment will deter them from crime. We, as a country, already have the highest prison population in Europe, and our prisons also hold the most people on life and indeterminate sentences. Yet the recorded crime rates have been going up until the mid-1990s, concurrently with the prison population. There is no evidence that harsher criminal justice policies reduce crime anywhere else, either. For example, in the US, the states where the death penalty is still practised do not have lower rates of murder. Any attempt to claim that longer sentences or harsher prison conditions will deter people who offend is thus not supported by research. In fact, our own country is an example to the contrary: our prisons are overcrowded, rife with violence, and conditions are often far from those of a “holiday camp”. A 2018 inspection of HMP Birmingham found blood, vomit and rat droppings on the floor – hardly a holiday camp of illegal booze, parties and video games that tabloid media often present.

So to say we want to be harsh on crime is unhelpful. It may be a politically popular bit of rhetoric that will get votes, but it fails to see the bigger picture. The blunt truth of the matter is that our prisons are too often warehouses that do little to nothing in terms of rehabilitation. For example, in 2018, just ⅖ of prisons were rated positively for purposeful activity, and even when prisoners did work, the work was often mundane and not conducive to finding employment after release.

One can safely assume that we all want people not to re-offend – to make our communities safer. We cannot keep resorting to simplistic, politically popular soundbite rhetoric for any longer, because it impedes approaching crime control with the complexity it requires. It is not just about putting more people behind bars; it is about addressing the fact that rehabilitation programs need to be funded and that the deprived communities, from where many people who offend are drawn from, need to be invested in. As I have argued elsewhere, we need to reject a myopic vision of justice as just desserts and realise that justice also includes social justice.

The question, to me, is not about crime rates. It is about a fundamentally unequal society and those at the bottom of it, those we are happy to throw behind bars and forget. Let’s have a conversation about justice that is not fixated on punitive just desserts. Until, and unless, we do, I fear that the latest statements are merely a smokescreen.

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