A Personal View
The treatment of “serious” criminals within the UK has long been a talking point which tends to polarise people. There are those in our society who consistently blame society itself for the criminal act and there are others who take a more pragmatic view.
Personally I believe that, as a broad rule of thumb, criminality should be punished and that punishment should, generally, fit the crime. In the early 1970’s I spent some time in various institutions as a result of my predilection for taking illegal drugs (whether or not said drug taking should be illegal is moot) and for generally being involved in the “anti-social” behaviour associated with the drug taking lifestyle. I stole things, I got involved in burglary, I avoided paying for goods and services, I bought and sold drugs and I had very scant regard for authority of any kind.
When I was caught I was charged and sentenced in line with the legal guidelines of the time, in total I spent just short of 15 months inside for offences that would now rarely merit a custodial sentence of any kind. Did it make me reflect on my behaviour, at the time, no, but the memory is still raw and the waste of my youth is always with me.
During this period the UK was becoming a far more “liberal” society, only a handful of years earlier capital punishment had been abolished in England Scotland and Wales. Not many people were sentenced to Borstal Training after 1972 and the system was finally abolished in 1982. It should be noted that during this period there were also a number of Detention Centres where sentences of up to 6 months could be served by young offenders, often in harsh and sometimes brutal conditions, although I have no personal experience of this.
A Life for a Life?
In 1965 Capital Punishment was abolished in the UK although it was retained in Northern Ireland until 1973. I don’t have all the figures for the number of people who have been sentenced to life since the last hangings in Britain, which took place in 1964, but there are some quite startling statistics where the issuing of life sentences for murder are concerned. Currently there are approximately 5,500 people serving life sentences for murder, 70 of these people are serving “whole of life” terms.
Since a peak of over 400 a year in the mid 2000’s the murder conviction rate has been steadily falling but this doesn’t reflect, I believe, the true picture as it is possible that crimes once considered to be murder are now “downgraded” to take into account “extenuating circumstances” and “mental health” issues. That is by the by though. Once capital punishment was abolished the whole criminal justice system must have been thrown into disarray and I believe it continues to be in that state today. Even more startling, to my mind, is the fact that, on average, 200 convicted murderers are released on licence having paid their debt to society. At the current rate there will very soon be more people being released from serving life for murder than there will be people getting convicted for the same crime.
Those amongst us that hold the belief that society itself is the root cause of criminality will, no doubt, rejoice at these numbers citing the (apparent) quite recent lowering murder rate as proof that rehabilitation works and we are becoming a better society. I disagree with that view, crime figures are constantly manipulated and crimes that were once considered worthy of a custodial sentence of some kind are now quite often not even investigated. Still though the prison population continues to grow at an alarming rate and the level of discipline in prisons is at an all time low. There are fewer prison officers now than there ever were, officers are routinely assaulted (many of these assaults actually go unreported) and their morale is at rock bottom. Quasi religious gangs, drug dealers and thugs rule the wings and vulnerable prisoners are routinely bullied. Riots, once major newsworthy incidents, are commonplace in a prison system that is part privatised and really no longer fit for purpose.
As things stand the “liberals” have won. How proud they must be, people being locked up without hope of ever being released on the one hand and violent criminals free to walk the streets on the other hand. A veritable socialist Utopia, or so they would have you believe. I have to pose the question though, is it really more humane to lock someone away for the whole of their life without hope of release than to execute them? Personally I don’t think so.
As with the “refugee” situation though, the liberals who support the current status quo rarely have to deal with the consequences. Let the plebs get burgled assaulted and murdered so long as those in power are seen to be mindful of the needs of the perpetrators of crime and dismissive of the victims. The question has to be then, what can be done to not only reduce repeat offending (something which needs to be considered) but to deter criminals in the first place?
Complex Problems, Simple Solutions
The first thing I would do is to reintroduce the death penalty for the majority of murder cases. There is little chance of miscarriage of justice due to advances in science and identification techniques. Certainly those that set out to murder for ideological reasons should not be considered for anything other than the sentence they would deliver on innocent people given the chance. Current lifers should have to complete the whole of their sentences without remission or parole. In certain circumstances and after a case review a death sentence could be retrospectively applied. If we had retained the death penalty there would have been as many as 35,000 prison places freed up for more serious offenders. The murder rate, since the abolition of the death penalty, has increased exponentially. In 1964 there were 296 murder convictions; 30 years later, in 1994, there were 632. This flies directly in the face of perceived “liberal” wisdom.
The reintroduction of the death penalty will help to bring other sentencing back into correct perspective. Life sentences could be applied to crimes other than murder and minimum tariffs increased accordingly. Getting out should be the aim for prisoners, but not getting out thinking they have got away with something. That might well encourage them to stay out.
I would end the system of remission being offered as a right rather than a privilege. Currently a prison sentence of 12 months means a period inside of 6 months with the rest of the sentence on license. A sentence should be for the period given with a maximum of 1/3rd remission for showing good behaviour and good discipline.
Reverse the privatisation of prisons, pay prison officers a rate commensurate with their responsibilities, increase their numbers and give them 100% support as they rebuild a regime based on respect for authority, discipline and fairness. Have a zero tolerance policy where the assault of prison officers is concerned and allow the use of reasonable force to deal with attacks. At the same time punish corrupt officers with prison sentences.
Stop treating small interest groups, including religious/ideological fanatics as special cases. All sentenced prisoners should be treated the same. Make the wearing of uniform compulsory.
Teach proper things to inmates, including the message that they alone are ultimately responsible for their conduct. Whatever their start in life or whatever their influences that led them to be convicted they are the ones that can effect change. I would suggest that those who refuse to change, or who see themselves as somehow above the law should receive none of the few privileges that ordinary prisoners can get. Bring those ex offenders who have made something of their lives into prisons to reinforce this message rather than those shackled by charities to deliver the “correct” narrative.
Crime and the punishment of crime are complex issues and the above is a list of just afew ideas that might make a difference. It would need funding, but the money is out there if we stop spending it where it doesn’t benefit this country. To make this work the judiciary would need to be radically overhauled and, whichever party was in power, the government would need to know that Law and Order is a priority for the many and not the few. Ultimately though we need to stop telling people who commit crimes how sorry we are that we made them do it. I’m not saying we don’t need compassion but I am saying we need to apply a bit of “tough love” and lots of common sense. The Guardian ran an article the other day blaming the rise in knife crime amongst young black men on austerity. That is what we are up against. Any party that promised a referendum (I know, election overload) on restoring the death penalty and introducing tougher sentencing guidelines would get my vote.