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Crime: putting the record straight.

There is not a single offence which does not, directly or indirectly, affect many others besides the actual offender. Hence, whether an individual is good or bad is not merely his own concern but really the concern of the whole community, nay, of the whole world.

Mahatma Gandhi

THE spectacular rise in the crime rate is a national scandal; it was predictable and largely preventable. It is the logical consequence of unrealistic sentencing policies. Research, statistics, experience and commonsense made the results foreseeable. The majority of offences are committed by identifiable persistent offenders, unmotivated to reform.

For more than a decade, the vociferous anti-prison lobby have achieved a remarkable propaganda coup by cornering the publicity market. They are now accepted as 'experts' on criminal justice and views contrary to their ideology are often vilified. Particularly vulnerable to their beliefs have been the Home Office, Judges, Magistrates, the Probation Service and the media. Their untenable views are repeatedly expounded with force and assumed authority; the 'justice' of their cause has been accepted without question and quoted ad nauseam by those ill-informed or gullible enough to believe them. This lobby has hi-jacked the criminal justice debate; many of their ideas have had a profound influence on sentencing policies which are now enshrined in the Criminal Justice Act 1991. One distinguished jurist has described the Act as a 'Charter for Criminals'.

There are few places in the United Kingdom where a citizen is free from fear of crime. No longer can society look to their elected Members of Parliament, Judges and Magistrates for protection. At no time in our history has a government legislated so dramatically to indulge criminals. No longer does the word 'tough' have any realistic meaning when it refers to sentencing; the same applies to the notion of 'just deserts'. The English language has been desecrated for political and ideological purposes. Never before has the concept of right and wrong been so blurred, and encouraged to be so by current criminal justice practices. The persistent criminal is treated as a favoured member of society. No longer does an offender with a serious criminal record warrant a 'tougher' sentence than a first offender. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 (CJA) has been based on faulty ideology, error, miscalculation and propaganda, all to protect persistent offenders from punishment for their crimes; it is in need of urgent amendment. Thousands of genuinely impecunious and law abiding citizens, many elderly, are under threat of seizure of property and ultimately imprisonment for not being able to afford to pay their poll tax. The fact that the majority are first offenders is no criteria for mercy. Not for them the privilege of a caution, a conditional discharge or probation. In comparison, non custodial sentences are given out to persistent property offenders whose crimes cost the rest of society billions of pounds a year. Can this be the British justice we have been taught to revere?

Calling for a drastic reorganisation of the police unjustly implies that it is predominantly their failure that has resulted in the crime wave, especially as police officer staffing levels have not been increased sufficiently to meet current crime levels. Blaming parents, teachers, unemployment, poverty, social deprivation, car manufacturers and those who fail to protect themselves from offenders for the massive increase in crime, is a cynical political ploy to divert attention from the real culprits, the criminals themselves, and failed government criminal justice policies. The vast majority of the poor and unemployed do not resort to crime. Criminals must be made to accept personal responsibility for their actions. To do otherwise is counter-productive for society as well as for the criminal. Recently the Princess Royal said that 'many youngsters already see theft and violence as a normal way of life'. Sadly that truth also applies to older age groups.

All the evidence is that community based sentences are no more successful than custodial ones; neither does a custodial sentence increase the re-offending rate. It is difficult therefore, to justify the exposure of society to the endless crimes of persistent offenders. A custodial sentence affords the public total protection while it is being served. Criminals who persist in offending should get even longer sentences. The concept of preventive detention must be considered. If the prison population has to be doubled, then so be it. Almost nobody goes to prison who has not chosen to do so.

Much has been made of the government determination to protect the public by dealing severely with those offenders who commit acts of 'violence against the person'. This type of propaganda is politically impressive but the truth is obscured. During 1989, research carried out by the Home Office, the Magistrates' Association and the Justices' Clerks' Society showed that courts in England and Wales imposed prison sentences on only 10 per cent of offenders who had committed acts of violence against the person; 90 per cent were given non-custodial sentences. Even more worrying is that 80 per cent of those convicted of assaulting a policeman escape a prison sentence.

The Probation Service can still play a vital part in the criminal justice system. Probation Officers must revert to their original role of helping those who are motivated to reform. Currently their expertise and dedication is wasted on offenders who only use supervision in the community to allow them to continue a life of crime.

Now that the CJA 1991 has become law there will be an inevitable increase in the crime rate. The timing by the Home Office of further restrictions on the working hours of prison officers is significant. It will follow that the supervision of prisoners will be reduced and the hours they are locked up in their cells may increase the probability of further unrest. As a direct result of this, courts will be put under increasing pressure to send even fewer criminals to prison. Similar pressure will be placed on the Parole Board to release prisoners even earlier. The crime rate will further increase and the quality of life will deteriorate to a degree too frightening to contemplate. It is not too late to reverse the situation. Realistic sentencing will go a long way to achieve it.

If a criminal has had the bad luck to be one of the seven per cent detected, he will have in the first place the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and probably a Duty Solicitor to protect his interests. If he then fails to be given an immediate police caution, his next agent of protection is the Crown Prosecution Service who will use all the rules and guidelines at their disposal to keep him out of court. Should he then become one of the select three per cent who do finally appear in court, he can then confidently rely on the services of a lawyer at public expense and a Probation Officer who will already be programmed to use all their skills to keep him out of prison.

They will be aided and abetted by Magistrates and Judges, many of whom are bereft of the courage of their own commonsense convictions, and have abdicated their primary role which is to protect the public. To justify their decisions will be all the powers of the Criminal Justice Act (1991) guaranteeing that the majority of criminals will escape their 'just deserts'.

If after many court appearances and numerous failed promises to reform, the offender does finally get a prison sentence, he can look forward to an early visit from the police who will write off unlimited outstanding offences admitted, normally without fear of further or additional penalty. He then has all the advantages of a liberal parole system which will release him after serving only half his sentence in the overwhelming majority of cases. He can also rely on the anti-prison lobby to turn statistical and research somersaults to convince society of the wrong they have done him by sending him to prison in the first place. The total impact of the criminal justice system on the persistent offender, is no more than a mild irritant. His spells in custody are, in the main, too infrequent and too short, to even begin to make him think twice. He knows only too well how much crime he has, and will, get away with. Back in society, he can again become one of the known 80 per cent who return to crime.

Had the Conservative Party published in their 1979 election manifesto a promise to criminalize a large proportion of the population and victimize the rest, their success would have exceeded their wildest dreams. Mr. Hattersley, former Shadow Home Secretary, had even more liberal views on crime; he accused the judiciary of 'a dangerous passion for prison'. Anthony Blair, MP, the current Shadow Home Secretary, appears to blame the rising crime rate on unemployment.

War must be declared on the criminal fraternity, particularly on the persistent offender; every humane and legitimate means must be employed to protect our beleaguered public who feel helpless and frightened in a country where law, order and justice were once at the very heart of the nation. Vigilante type responses to feelings of outrage at some lenient sentences are increasing. Great Britain has become a criminals' paradise; they are the most privileged and protected members of society. It is pointless to pour endless millions of pounds into a criminal justice system which has failed. Only sensible sentencing policies, particularly regarding persistent offenders, will reverse the escalating crime rate. There is no doubt that when the disadvantages of their life of crime (i.e. getting caught and locked up for increasingly long periods) outweigh the advantages, will persistent criminals stop offending. Although difficult to quantify, this policy would be unarguably cost effective.

Former Home Office Minister, John Patten, said that one of the reasons for the increasing crime rate, is that offenders have no fear of the hereafter. What is equally certain is that the current criminal justice system has given them no reason to fear the here-and-now. Persistent offenders demonstrate utter contempt for the Law, Judges, Magistrates and the Probation Service charged with their 'rigorous, effective and credible supervision' as well as the victims.

Crime is a particular issue for William Waldegrave, MP, JP, Minister responsible for the Citizen's Charter. It is, of course, the primary responsibility of Kenneth Clarke, QC, MP, the Home Secretary. Both these Cabinet Ministers are acutely aware of the issues. For the first time for many years, we can look forward with hope that there will be dramatic changes of policy to protect the general public and reverse the escalating crime rate.

The Home Office has recently announced that it intends to crackdown on 'hard core' persistent young offenders, thus abrogating the bizarre philosophical basis of the CJA 1991 within three months of it becoming law. New secure detention orders will provide for an increase in the number of custodial sentences. This is excellent news and it clearly shows that the Home Secretary has the courage to defy the bankrupt policies of the anti-prison lobby, who are vociferous in their condemnation of these proposals. They ignore the reality that it will provide sentencers with greater opportunities to protect the public. Applying similar policies to persistent adult offenders will do much to reduce the crime rate.

|Peter Coad is a retired Senior Probation Officer. The above article is an extract from a treatise on crime which is available in full from the author at |pounds~3.50 per copy. Address: 20 Druid Woods, Stoke Bishop, Bristol BS9 1SY.~
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Author:Coad, Peter
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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