What is crime?
The answer is so obvious that we probably never stop to ask the question.
In a Christian society, the Ten Commandments form the basis of most laws and breaking these is considered to be “evil” and therefore, wrong per se.
Equally, there are many regulations introduced by the government designed to protect society and breaking them is not always considered a crime by a lot of people. How many of us exceed the speed limit by a small margin or have work done and pay cash to avoid VAT without feeling the least bit guilty about it?
“Thou shalt not kill” is perhaps the most famous Commandment and is universally known.
“Thou shalt not sound thy motor horn in a built up area between the hours of 11.00 p.m. and 7.00 a.m.” is perhaps one of the less obvious of the regulations and is not widely known.
Generally, most people accept the validity of the Ten Commandments when explained and extended to cover modern day living and, therefore, accept the validity of laws derived from them.
Public acceptance of the definition of crime is vital if the state is to win public support for dealing with anti-social behaviour. In most Western countries, politicians lose sight of this and introduce far too many regulatory offences that are not well understood by the people and are often disliked and flouted.
Most regulatory offences appear to be there to protect the majority from the anti-social minority but they are too numerous and the majority of people have little idea of what they are.
It would seem sensible for schools to teach children about the law and what constitutes a crime so that at least people would know when they were committing or about to commit an offence.
What is punishment?
Again the answer is so obvious that it doesn’t require thinking about – or does it?
Punishment could be defined as the action taken by those in authority against those whose acts contravene regulations. By definition, punishment must be something that one does not want to happen to oneself and generally contains two elements – retribution and deterrence. Retribution is the idea that if you commit an offence, you must be made to suffer in proportion to that offence.
If punishment is to succeed in curbing offending behaviour, it must be both certain and of a nature that ensures that the individual being punished does not want to receive that punishment again, and that the person’s peers take note of what has happened and think about whether they would wish to commit the same offence. I have deliberately not used the words law and crime above as punishments can be applied in the home, in schools, the workplace, clubs and private groups and within society as a whole – in fact, anywhere that has rules governing the behaviour of it members.
InBritain, we are still a punishment based society and yet the punishments that we apply are generally ineffective and unclear to the majority of the population. It is impossible to say in most cases what punishment the courts will impose for a given crime and it is likely to vary considerably in different parts of the country. This is very dangerous as well as being unjust. If people do not know with certainty what will happen to them, how are they supposed to be deterred? It is reasonable to suggest that only in the cases of murder and drink driving would most people be able to say what sentence the court would impose.
The effect of crime and subsequent punishment.
Crime is a negative thing, it is innately destructive – at its most extreme, it causes the lives of both the victim and the criminal to be taken but even the least crimes lead to destructive results for both parties and for society in general.
In serious crimes (typically leading to a prison sentence) the victim is often traumatised, sometimes permanently, and may suffer emotional and physical damage for years.
Imprisonment destroys the inmate’s future employability and their personal relationships, both of which make re-offending more likely.
In less serious crimes, the victim may typically suffer fear, inconvenience and financial loss and the rest of us will end up with the bill for higher household and car insurance and higher local taxes to pay for repairing vandalism, removing graffiti, etc.
Where the offender can actually be caught, they will often receive a non-custodial punishment, but this can still destroy their reputation and self esteem or their regard for authority and may also affect their employability.
Punishment is by definition retroactive and is a blunt instrument – it usually does little or nothing to address the original cause of offending or the offender’s problems, nor does it generally do anything to directly compensate the victims. It works on the basis that if you hit someone hard enough, they may change their ways. Sadly, a large proportion of those sent to prison don’t change their ways and do re-offend, often repeatedly. There are two obvious reasons for this : 1) that after serving a prison sentence, it is very difficult for people to get a proper job and live a normal life so that re-offending can become their only real option and 2) that prison rarely addresses the personal/social problems of the offender and simply sends them back out into society no better (and often worse) than when they entered the system. A typical example of this is a young man who is sent to prison for stealing to fund his drug habit. He is locked up but does not receive effective treatment to cure his addiction. In fact, amazingly, he will probably still be able to get drugs in prison. How do we seriously expect this man to be “better” when he is released – still hooked on drugs and therefore still stealing to pay for them? We hear of the “revolving door” of prison where a person is released from one sentence only to commit a further crime and be re-admitted for the next sentence. People often serve several sentences before they receive real help and acquire an actual desire to end their criminality.
The cost of punishment.
In Britain, prison costs typically £700 per week for an ordinary prisoner – over £36,000 per year according to the Home Office in 2006.
On this basis, a life sentence at today’s prices will cost £550,000 for a 15-year term. (Maximum security prisoners tend to far be more expensive). Around £2.5 billion (or £40.00 per annum by every man, woman and child) is spent on the UK criminal justice system at present and is steadily rising.
Does society get any real value from spending these vast sums?
If one were to do a cost/benefit analysis, would you find that crime could be reduced by spending these huge amounts of money in different ways?
For instance, parenting classes, truancy patrols, effective supervision and treatment of out of control children and adolescents, psychiatric help and support, screening of children to spot potential problems and cure them before they become tragedies.
Punishment and democracy.
Punishment is popular with the law abiding members of most societies and when crime rises, there is pressure on the legislature for more severe punishments. Surveys show that capital punishment enjoys wide spread popular support in many democratic countries. Corporal punishment and longer and harsher prison terms equally tend to enjoy support in many countries even if their governments will not permit such things. Is this because we are all sadists or because we are afraid of being victims? Are we conditioned by the media to see ever harsher punishments as some sort of panacea to cure crime?
Yet there is little evidence to show that punishment, however harsh, actually works in reducing crime. In Britain, the maximum penalty available to the courts for most adult crimes is surprisingly severe but the actual sentences the offenders receive are usually a fraction of that maximum and then they are released after serving only half of that sentence. But would Britain really become a safer place if people were kept in prison for longer?
When there is a bad accident involving, say a child, there is always demand for speed restrictions or speed cameras, etc. which are magically expected to cure the problem. They do not, typically cure anything, but criminalise and therefore punish those perceived as being to blame for the problem. In a democracy, it is very difficult for the government to ignore single issue pressure groups and they often get their way.
One can only be deterred if one thought about the consequences of the crime before committing it.
It is also clear that those with most to lose are more likely to be deterred than those who have little or nothing to lose. Thus the bottom end of the social spectrum tend to form the largest part of the prison population. But does punishment, however severe, really deter others? It obviously didn’t deter those who were punished. In 18th century Britain, people were slowly hanged in public for a large number of relatively minor offences but even this cruel, degrading and brutal death seemed to have very little effect – it has always been claimed that people were picking pockets in the crowd assembled to watch the pickpockets hang.
Nowadays, we have a prison population of over 81,000 (the highest ever) but is crime falling? Not as far as I know.
The conclusion is that at best (or at worst?) punishment has only a minimal deterrent effect on those who were actually going to commit the crime in the first place and is only likely to deter those of us who weren’t going to anyway. Increasing the probability and therefore the fear of detection seems to reduce crime. DNA testing has improved detection and conviction rates in murder and rape cases.
Road side speed cameras have an immediate effect on motorists’ behaviour and town centre closed circuit television cameras may have a beneficial effect on street crime. Technology will undoubtedly throw up new methods of improving detection rates.
Much emphasis is placed upon rehabilitation by prison reform groups and there is obviously a lot of sense in trying to rehabilitate prisoners to lead an honest and normal life upon release. To this end, they are taught skills and trades within prison. I feel that it may be much more use to address their drugs/emotional/mental problems (e.g. anger management courses for violent offenders) and doubt whether there is sufficient effort devoted to this. I also wonder whether it is actually possible to rehabilitate some offenders. Society does not either forgive or forget particularly awful crimes – witness the furore over the release of the two boys who murdered James Bulger.
Mad or bad – nature or nurture?
We still do not really know if people are born bad or if they become bad by virtue of their upbringing or lack of it. However, as we are now beginning to unravel the mysteries of the brain, we may be able to find an answer to this. Already scientists are able to identify genes that are responsible for certain types of behaviour as well as physical features.
It is clear that certain types of criminal literally cannot help themselves from committing offences that even they acknowledge as being wrong. Many paedophiles would come into this category. Punishment or the fear of it does not have any effect on them and, therefore, we must either permanently contain these people in secure units or find a genuine cure for their particular mental problems.
Equally, it seems that a lot of people commit minor offences because they can get away with it or because “it’s a laugh” or a means of obtaining easy money, etc. These people could be classed as bad because they understand society’s rules and their own actions but choose to disobey the rules for their own selfish ends. They may well prove much harder to diagnose and treat and are likely to be the result of a poor upbringing and an undisciplined society. It is easy to see the effects of discipline upon this very much larger group – they keep to the speed limit on roads where there are cameras and promptly speed up as soon as the risk of detection and punishment is passed.
Acceptance of society’s values.
Should society be more willing to be judgmental and enforce majority values? Is it reasonable that anti-social behaviour should go unchallenged? Whilst I realise that to impose sets of values limits personal freedom, I think that we may decide that it is a price worth paying particularly as the “tab” will be picked up by the rest of us for those who currently flout our values in the name of their personal freedom. Can we accept that some people do not take part in school and work and prefer to do neither whilst expecting the rest of us to provide them with Social Security? As the current spend on benefits has topped £140 billion per annum and is rising, it is probable that one day we will decide that we can no longer afford to subsidise the personal freedom of the minority through the efforts of the majority.
The perception of punishment.
Having never been in prison I have little real idea what it is really like but how often does one hear people say the “prisons are like holiday camps” or that punishments are “too soft?” This is a perception of punishment derived from the media – accurate or otherwise. Is it the perception that you have? Now if you are thinking of committing a crime, will this be a significant factor? You may have also read the local crime detection figures and concluded that in the unlikely event of being caught in the first place, the punishment would be tolerable in the second place.
There is the perception, particularly amongst juveniles who commit the bulk of minor offences, that there is no risk of punishment at all. Few people, especially teenagers, could tell you what the typical punishment was for any given offence so the perception of what will happen to them is based principally on what they know has happened to their friends caught committing similar offences. For most minor offences, teenagers, if they are actually caught and arrested (and only a small proportion are), will typically face a caution from a middle aged police officer who they will probably regard as just “a boring old fart.” When they leave the police station, what will they tell their friends? That it was the worst experience of their lives? That they were scared stiff? No, more likely that the whole thing was just a breeze.
In one’s teens what one’s friends tell you is far more important than what one’s parents say and infinitely more important than what teachers say. For those who read newspapers, probably a small minority in their early teens, the media will only reinforce the perception of no or minimal punishment. So the only effective message that they receive is that crime is OK. If it wasn’t, society would do more about it. Teenagers have, therefore, merely adapted to their environment like most other species do, e.g. urban foxes and motorway sparrow hawks.
What follows is a purely fictional account of two opposing systems.
Scenario 1. (the present reality). A 13 year old girl (lets call her Sarah) is arrested for shoplifting in a record store on Saturday afternoon. She is taken to the police station and when an appropriate adult arrives, is questioned. She admits the offence of stealing a CD worth £15.99 and is cautioned by the duty inspector and released (probably driven home in a police car, as she is considered “vulnerable”).
On Sunday morning, she normally meets her friend Jane in the park for a chat and a smoke. She tells Jane what happened to her and laughs about how many times she got away with it in the past. Jane is deeply unimpressed by the “punishment” and agrees that shoplifting is better than saving her pocket money as a means of getting the latest CD’s. Next Saturday, they both go shoplifting and do not get caught.
Scenario 2. Sarah has committed exactly the same offence and has been arrested and taken to the police station. This time, however, things are a little different. Sarah is told that she can choose one of two options. She can either submit to 3 strokes of the cane or alternatively, spend the night in the cells and appear before the magistrates tomorrow who can sentence her to up to 6 strokes with or without a curfew order.
She chooses the first option and is taken into a room by 3 police women and bent over a table. Whilst two of the officers hold her down the third canes her. After a couple of hours in the cells, she is told she can go home. On Sunday morning, Jane is waiting in the park for her friend but she doesn’t turn up so Jane goes to Sarah’s house to see what’s wrong. Sarah’s mum opens the door and tells her that Sarah is still in bed and isn’t feeling very well. Jane goes up to see her. Sarah is lying face down on the bed and is clearly distressed and tearful. She tells Jane what happened – how “two of the bitches stripped me and held me down while the other one did this to me” – showing Jane the weals on her bottom.
Will Sarah re-offend the following Saturday? Will Jane be deterred or will she go shoplifting with her friend?
Word of Sarah’s punishment soon gets round the class and her circle of friends. It is a clear message to all that shoplifting is wrong and will be punished.
What would be the effect on juvenile crime if scenario two was adopted and teenagers knew that they would face mandatory corporal punishment if they were caught?
Corporal punishment, as described above, is very cheap and quick to administer. Cost and speed of punishment are important factors. Because it is administered immediately, it will not interrupt Sarah’s education nor will it take her away from her family.
It is clearly ridiculous to bring a child to court 3 months or more after the offence, when they can barely remember what they are supposed to have done, and then have an expensive court case leading to costly social reports followed by a probation or supervision order or worse still a care order. If a child is placed in care or sent to a young offenders’ institution, the costs are astronomical and the effect upon them, long term, very destructive. But it is no deterrent – if you are 13, do you understand the implications of being “taken into care” and it does not sound like a punishment?
But, you may say, we cannot possibly beat children, especially 13 year old girls! Obviously I must be a sadist advocating such a thing. Yet remember that 20 or 30 years ago Sarah would have been caned (on the hand) merely for smoking at school and most people accepted this at the time. In some states of America, girls are still subjected to corporal punishment at school.
The fact of being caned would create a lasting impression upon Sarah and her peers and make her and perhaps some of them realise that committing crime is wrong and will lead to unpleasant consequences. It also clearly demonstrates that society does have power over her and demands certain standards of behaviour. How many of today’s teenagers seem to regard themselves as beyond the law?
It may also deter her from committing more serious crimes in the future – on the basis that if they cane you just for stealing a CD, what would they do to you if you did something really bad?
The idea of punishment without trial will also appal many people (although a trial must be offered as an alternative). But is it so wrong when the offender is caught red-handed and there is video evidence to show them committing the offence?
In Scenario two, the experts (professional do-gooders?) have not had the chance to get at Sarah to convince her and allow her to convince herself that she is not really in the wrong. Nor have they had the chance to get at the court and convince them that her actions were caused through poverty/unhappy childhood/abuse/stress or any other of the excuses that are trotted out to justify why she should receive no punishment at all. Sarah is made to believe that what she did was wrong. She has been shown the video evidence and been punished and all within a couple of hours of the offence. This is most important. If she tells her friends that she was caught “nicking this CD and got the cane,” the message will be much stronger than if she tells them that “I didn’t do nothing really so they had to let me off.”
Does punishment for juvenile offences need to be more “child centred” to use a modern buzz word? If punishment is the way forward, a child needs to know that he or she will be punished just like their friends were if there is to be any deterrent effect. Which scenario is most likely to deter the young lady from further offending and which would you support?
Punishment in England in the 19th century.
The death penalty by public hanging was available for some 220 offences ranging from murder to damaging Westminster Bridge. In reality, there were only about 20 crimes for which people were actually executed and death sentences were frequently reduced to transportation. Hanging, drawing and quartering was still used for traitors up to 1820, although by then was hanging until dead followed by decapitation. Burning at the stake for females convicted of high treason and petty treason (murder of their husband or superiors) was only abolished in 1790. From 1861, in reality only murderers were hanged and from 1868 executions became private..
Transportation either for life or for a specified period of years was the next tier of punishment and continued in use up to the 1860’s. The convicts were sent to penal colonies in America and later Australia and had to work hard to survive. Many did survive and prosper as the experience taught them self reliance and the relevance of work. Many also died of disease on the prison ships taking them to the colonies or of illnesses contracted once there. Prison as a punishment came into being from 1819 and gradually replaced execution and transportation as the punishment for offences other than murder.
Flogging was still available for both sexes (It was abolished for women in 1805) and was carried out in public. The pillory and the stocks were also in use as a means of public humiliation for various minor offences in the early part of the century. Fines were used for minor offences.
In 1800, there was very little media (newspapers were very expensive and not widely available), therefore, all punishments were public to get the message across.
Punishment in England in the 20th century.
A great deal had changed over the preceding century.
The death penalty, now by long drop hanging in private, was applied only for murder and almost half of those who were sentenced to death were reprieved. The death penalty effectively ended in 1964.
Prison was the normal punishment for serious offences. Hard labour was still a feature of many prison sentences in the early part of the century and male prisoners could be found breaking rocks on Dartmoor.
Corporal punishment for male criminals (now in private) was still available up to 1962, although much less widely used. Birching was used on juveniles with the Cat o’ Nine Tails reserved for offences committed within prison by adults.
Punishment in England in the 21st century.
The maximum punishment now, is life in prison, although only very few people will actually spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Most are released on parole after serving their “tariff period” of 12-15 years for a single murder, although the present Labour government has increased the tariffs (time to be served actually in prison) for the worst murderers.
Determinate terms of imprisonment are still widely used for serious offenders.
Fines are imposed for a wide range of minor offences and we have probation and community service orders for slightly more serious ones. Generally, punishments have become less severe but otherwise most of the traditional methods are still used.
Does punishment achieve anything?
The simple answer is NO. It is a self perpetuating con trick because we cannot or do not wish to find better solutions.
If we were willing to apply extreme punishments as a norm, i.e. death for all serious crimes, rigorous imprisonment for intermediate offences and harsh floggings for most other offences, we would almost certainly see a reduction in crime. However, even in the harshest regimes people still continue to commit crimes, so it is clear that a reduction is the best we can hope for. But how many of us would wish to live in such a society? This sort of punitive regime is, therefore, very unlikely to occur within a Western democracy because people do not want it and would not vote for it.
And yet if we continue as we are, we achieve very little for anyone and that only at an enormous financial cost. The fear of crime effects us all – just look at the proliferation of household burglar alarms and the number of cars fitted with immobilisers and steering locks that people have paid for out of their own pockets to try and minimise their perceived risk of being a victim. We know that some housing estates are virtual no go areas where even the police approach with great caution and only in twos or fours.
We know that there is gunfire regularly heard in some areas of British cities from local drug gangs sorting out territorial disputes. We read daily of murders and other dreadful crimes and yet what does the penal system do to protect us from all this? Will building new prisons and locking up ever more people really help? We know that the answer is no and yet the government will still continue to do it. They will also continuously tinker with the laws increasing the maximum sentence for this crime or that or introducing a new offence here or there, but we know that it will have no effect other than probably to push up the cost to the taxpayer and slightly increase the sum total of human misery.
So what can be done?
Ideally, we need to identify ways of preventing people committing the crime in the first place.
Can genetics help here? It seems that we can identify genes that may cause or influence criminal behaviour. If this is true, will we one day be able to modify these genes?
Would better parenting and better education reduce criminality? Should we place more emphasis on the teaching of right and wrong, personal responsibility, and respect for the lives and property of others?
Would earlier identification of criminal and potential criminal behaviour and effective treatment of it bring real benefits?
Can technology make crime more difficult to commit and/or easier to detect?
Can computers control cars so as to prevent their theft and prevent the reckless driving that results in death and injury?
Can we offer better psychiatric help to children and adults to help solve their personality problems and steer them away from crime?
Can we use technology to control the movements of people? We can already use electronic tagging and this might be extended to cover those deemed to be at risk of offending.
Perhaps we could invent equipment that monitors thoughts and sounds an alarm when a person begins to have criminal or violent thoughts.
Will we license breeding in the next century? It is obvious that bad parenting is a major cause of criminal behaviour in children and yet we allow anyone to have a child irrespective of their circumstances or suitability for the role of parent. At the same time, we impose extremely onerous conditions on couples seeking to adopt a child. Do people have a right to breed irrespective of the outcome and the cost to the rest of us? At present, society says that they do but this view may change over the next 50 years as its flaws become increasingly obvious and expensive.
In the case of some our worst crimes and the cases of many minor but serial offenders, a great deal is often known about the offender and yet no effective corrective action is taken. Take the case of 8 year old Sarah Payne who was abducted, sexually abused and murdered by Roy Whiting. Whiting had previously abducted and sexually abused another little girl, an offence for which he received a 4 year prison sentence and while in prison was allowed to refuse treatment for his sexual problems. So he was released as a human time bomb and an innocent child paid the price for this. But we knew what he was like beforehand. So Sarah’s short life is brutally ended. Whiting’s life is also effectively over, he will probably never be released and will live in constant fear of attack by other prisoners. After Sarah was abducted, huge amounts of resources were expended on the search for her and on the capture and conviction of Whiting. Hundreds of intelligent, highly qualified people were involved in the case and yet none of these resources were devoted to trying to solve the problem before it happened. Had they been, Sarah might well be still alive today and Roy Whiting might be able to live a normal life in society as a result of treatment.
Punishment in England in 2100.
I think that one of two scenarios will be obtained in 100 years time. Either we will have returned to a “hanging and flogging” society where punishments are severe but low cost and effective. Perhaps transportation will also return with offenders being packed off to another planet with harsh climatic conditions.
Or we will have realised the futility of punishment and moved away from it all together by removing the need for it.
If scenario two is to succeed, it will require radical action on the part of governments and a radical re-think of accepted wisdom in society. It will be a difficult transition because there are, as always, a lot of vested interests – the punishment industry – comprised of police, prison officers, the probation service, the judiciary, etc. who will resist change especially if it will bring about their redundancy. The general public will also require re-education away from its current obsession with punishment that is rooted in thousands of years of tradition. It is probable that the public will not like or vote for the kind of extremely controlled environment outlined above and may actually prefer the “hanging and flogging model.”
Which model of society would you prefer to live in?
A controlled and sterile one with no direct victims but where everyone has very much reduced personal freedom and freewill or a severe but free society where the guilty are punished effectively to provide a safer environment for the innocent majority? I do not think that we can continue as we are with a penal society that is totally ineffective at curbing crime and anti-social behaviour whilst at the same time alarmingly expensive.