Crime and (community) punishment

That convicts spared gaol attack 50 people a day may be news. But it’s nothing new. Nor is it surprising: a country that’s too timid to punish criminals properly is encouraging crime. And a country where Ken ‘Kenneth’ Clarke is Justice Secretary is positively begging for it.

Ken ‘Kenneth’, mostly reflecting the bias of those who live in low-crime areas, believes in community punishment even more fervently than he believes in the EU. He dislikes prisons much more than he dislikes criminals. We can’t afford any more prisons, he claims. And even if we could, we shouldn’t have them because prison doesn’t work.

Now, since my wife doesn’t approve of swearing, I’m not going to tell you what I think of Clarke’s moral and intellectual qualities. Moreover, in the spirit of this Christmas season, I’ll consider his arguments as if they were worthy of consideration. It’s not all about displaying seasonal generosity – it’s also knowing that many of our MPs share Clarke’s views. I realised this a few months ago when attending a debate on the issue, with an MP and even a minister repeating the same mindless mantra: prison doesn’t work. Why? Because there’s no evidence it makes people better.

That’s true. But then neither do supermarkets, restaurants, stadiums, railway stations – and yet we have them all, secure in the knowledge that improving people isn’t their function. Neither is it the function of prisons. But this obvious fact is somehow doubted precisely by the people who are paid to know better.

Prison works in many ways. Some will see it as simple retributive justice, as Kant did. Others will emphasise its deterrent value. Still others will feel that prison, in addition to its obvious utility in isolating criminals from their potential victims, has a great symbolic value. It asserts the moral superiority of good over evil, thereby restoring the social serenity upset by the wicked deed. It also communicates to all and sundry that society has convictions — and the courage of its convictions. These are things that prison and, in the absence of the death penalty, only prison does successfully.

What it demonstrably neither can nor is designed to achieve is the elimination of evil and the moral regeneration of mankind. This is a task, often an impossible one, for the church, not for the state. The only lives that can and should be improved by punishment are those of the good people outside prisons, not those of the bad people inside. And that happens to be the whole idea.

People considerably cleverer than Ken Clarke have always known this. For example, Luther divided the world into the religious and secular realms and argued that the Sermon on the Mount only applied to the spiritual one. In the physical world, the balance between faith and duty to the community imposes compromises. Thus a judge, as a servant of the public, should follow his secular obligations to sentence a criminal to prison, if such a verdict is appropriate. But, as a servant of God, he ought to mourn the criminal’s fate and pray for his soul. Justice in the secular world has to function according to the Old, not New, Testament. Turning the other cheek saves people’s souls. ‘An eye for an eye’ saves their lives and property.

Those who don’t think prison works should tell that to the wife of a murder victim. Or to a pensioner robbed of his life’s savings. Or to a woman raped and beaten within an inch of her life. No doubt they’ll all agree. Moreover, tell it to New Yorkers who saw their city transformed from a crime-infested hellhole into a reasonably civilised place by Mayor Giuliani’s policy of ‘zero tolerance’. The policy was simple: Giuliani had a lot of prisons built and filled to the brim. The crime rate instantly dropped to a manageable level, if not quite zero. Next problem.

As to the state not being able to afford prisons, this argument is even more spurious. The state has only a few legitimate functions, and primary among them is protecting its citizens from attacks by both foreign enemies and domestic criminals. It’s for this purpose that the state was instituted in the first place. It’s the only purpose that must be achieved regardless of cost. So predictably our army and law enforcement are the only public services that are indeed suffering savage cuts – politicians see them as soft targets.

The state might have come into being to provide for internal and external security – our spivocratic state serves a different purpose: the self-perpetuation of the spivocrats. Where will the money come from? they bleat, shifting the argument from philosophy to arithmetic. I have an idea: why not dip into the £10-billion foreign-aid budget, which is enjoying nice little increases while we supposedly can’t afford hospital beds, never mind prisons?

We’re already spending more on foreign aid than either Germany or France, and most of the money goes to economies capable of cranking out space rockets and nuclear bombs. Surely, Messrs Clarke and Cameron, you could spare a few billion to protect us from vicious thugs? After all, community punishment was supposed to mean punishment in the community. Not of it.





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