The bane of the popular press

‘ Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is the best mate yobs ever had. He doesn’t believe they should go to jail. Our police are run by politically correct robots. Our courts crawl to Europe and put the rights of murderers and rapists and paedophiles before law-abiding families’ The Sun Says online 20.4.2011

I have been around long enough not to be surprised by the capacity of editors from the so-called popular dailies manufacturing headlines such as the one above in order to create another over hyped moral panic about criminal justice policies. But to see the distorted discussions of crime news in recent weeks feels like the start of a concerted attempt to undermine current policies particularly those of the MoJ’s Kenneth Clarke as he seeks bravely, maybe foolhardy, to change some of the direction of penal policy. I guess the mauling that Willie Whitelaw achieved under Thatcher is the nearest contemporary equivalent.

I am currently resident in Hong Kong though soon returning to the UK which feels a little depressing. I was sat watching local TV last night when a short video/advert appeared on TV. This showed a rehabilitated offender seeking a job and the employer about to deny him that opportunity. The video reminded him, through flash backs to all the times he had been given a second chance. The advert then showed the employer giving the ex-offender a job and concluded with the slogan Give Rehabilitated Offenders a Second Chance. Simple, obvious and yet I sat there thinking how might such an advert go down in the UK? Who would dare to publish it on TV and suffer the criticism in the popular press. Can you begin to imagine the sort of headlines it might attract. ‘Paedophile misuses media for  job in crèche’ ‘Party political broadcast for the ‘I deserve a job’ Criminal Party’ or ‘Thugs running the BBC’ or probably even worse.

I belive we have reached a crucial stage in the evolution of our criminal justice policy. If the Clarke reforms are brushed aside by this crude media campaign we will be back to the late 1970s and the hysteria about law and order which swept Thatcher to power backed then by a media campaign led by the police. It is ironic that the police have themselves been conducting a negative campaign against the cuts now that they find themselves less protected by the governing party than they did in 1979. In 30 years of political campaigning and government action since 1979 we have not seen a considered debate about the direction of criminal policy until Clarke issued his Green Paper. The notion, meant to be the UK consitutional process for new laws, that this was the normal mode of consultation prior to legislation had been swept aside in the 1990s and the Noughties producing one Act after the other without a pause for reflection. Each manufactured crisis producing one ill-considered change after another. Indeed much of this change often  involved merely a change of language or image  to find the ultimate negative spin on orders of the courts – Community Service Orders (still the preferred term used across the world) became Community Punishment Orders, then Community Payback, then Unpaid Work and in the papers last week the latest re-branding, Work Order was the new suggestion and it should be for 40 hours a week. Slave Order might be a more apt description.

Clarke has gone through the more considered and sober approach of issuing a Green Paper. For that alone the press should be supporting him. let’s have a proper debate. The government have even tried to demonstrate some attention to an evidence-base by issuing documents detailing research to accompany the Green Paper. I am not an academic that believes that research evidence alone should be the ultimate guide to policy and practice. I belive policy making is a crowded arena in which the views of many compete for their voice to be heard. I am a believer though in applying some degree of rationality to the debate which allows ideas to be looked at for their merits and calmly debated. If there is one piece of evidence we should take note of is that rushed laws which meet the latest moral outrage rarely makes good legislation.

The media often forecloses on such debates with headlines and hysteria which does not contemplate rational discussion. There is no chance to mount a more reasoned riposte to the issues raised as they are flagged as outside of reasonable discussion. The ‘mindlessness’ often attributed by these papers to offenders is self-evidently there in their own headlines: inaccurate,  distorted and loaded with the dead weight of bile against anything constructive to do with the rehabilitation of offenders. And therein lies the rub and the fallacy of this kind of anti-criminal lobby.

If this lobby is correct why have we not seen crime getting worse since 1979 and the streets becoming even more dangerous than they paint. Yesterday we received news that yet again the overall trend is for a reduction in the crime rate – let’s not credit that with a decent headline. Today we will see the headline: ‘Latest Crime Rates show police not doing their jobs properly’ If offenders were simply the mindless thugs that they are painted how is it possible that many ex-offenders have trailblazed engagement in the system to help other offenders as prison listeners, prisoner advice workers, peer mentors,peer supporters and other roles which help ex-offenders give back and improve their prospects. maybe prisoners contemplating their future in isolation will use their right to vote more responsibly than those who make their political choices through the influence of the banner headlines.

Clarke is right that money is wasted on the prisons. In 20 years the prison population has doubled despite the reductions in crime rates. Unlike the USA, which predominately sends violent criminals to custody admittedly in ridiculous numbers, the UK has a compliant prison population of people who can be safely dealt with through community sentences without putting the public at greater risk. I part company with Clarke when he proposes more punitive community orders. We have been through an era where national standards insisted offenders were breached for every minor indiscretion and measured how well the probation service did this but at the same time forgot that their primarily role was to work directly with those offenders. Its a tough job changing your lifestyle. Many sit on the moral high ground thinking it is just fecklessness which prevents change amongst the offending population.

Desistance from offending in common with desistance from many severe problems such as smoking, alcohol abuse, drugs or obesity, is rarely a single moment of enlightenment. The pattern is more normally one of progress, relapse and then more progress. If we create a whole generation of projects who are to be judged on their absolute cessation of offending through Payment-by-Results schemes we may be merely setting them up to fail. Ask yourself what is the thing you find most difficult to desist from and how easy is it to do so? Change is rarely easy and we should celebrate not denigrate the ability of offenders to change their behaviour patterns, we should encourage not discourage any lengths of time they are crime-free and making progress and as the HK adverts say we should give them a second chance so that they can overcome their problems in an atmosphere where it feels like the country wants them to do so not in the world of the Sun and the Mail who seem to want them all to fail. The ultimate fallacy of this aggressive anti-criminal press is that failure will mean more crimes, more victims,more costs, increased incivilities and decreased safety. Why would anyone advocate such an outcome?

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