Thursday, 8 October 2009

To jail or not to jail?

Prison as punishment is a 19th century humanitarian invention that was something of an advance on what preceded it. Although prisoners were held prior to trial, if found guilty they would be whipped, or branded, or have their nose slit, or ears cut off, or be fined or hanged. It was all a bit, well, Islamic. They wouldn't go back to just being locked up - which wasn't seen as any sort of punishment. Later we exported them - first to America, until a little local inconvenience there in 1776, and later to Australia. Eventually, just as the Second Enlightenment kicked in to end slavery, so it modified our approach to retributive justice. Jeremy Bentham got to work on his drawing board, and Her Majesty became the proud owner of the world's first Panopticon Prison.

Rehabilitation didn't arrive on the scene until sociologists started to turn up in the sixties, at about the same time as we stopped jailing buggers. By the nineties, we were being invited to view prisoners as victims; prison, we were told, was the inevitable destination of most 17 - 24 year old ill-educated but testosterone fuelled bastards from sink estates, and their 'criminality' was our fault, not theirs.

And now the Prison Governors' Association, a body riddled with the cancer of sociology, has called for all sentences under 12 months to be abolished. Never mind that Cameron has just called for magistrates' sentencing powers to be increased from 6 to 12 months. Never mind that this would remove the sanction of imprisonment from the courts that dispose of the vast majority of criminal offences. Never mind that those living next to neighbours from Hell will get no respite from persecution. The PGA are away with the fairies; completely out of touch with what we require them to do, which is to hold in prison for the term specified by the judge or magistrate those whom we have collectively determined must be so punished. Some sentences must, for fairness, be short and some long.

In Waugh's 'Decline and Fall' a liberal prison chaplain named Prendergast decides the best rehabilitation for a homicidal carpenter is to provide him with a full set of the tools of his trade. The prison landing is shortly rewarded with Prendergast's screams as the mad chippie saws his head off. The PGA would probably put it down as the exception that proves the rule.


banned said...

As you say, gaols were originally used for containment rather than punishment; either prior to a decision, as a place for torture to extract the truth, to keep unhelpful people out of the way or to await ransom.
In Anglo-Saxon and Norman England punishment was largely by fines and confiscation. These could be draconian and life ruining, sometimes including entire estates or all the criminals goods and chattels. Only in Victorian times was the state forbidden to remove the tools of a workmans trade ( still applies ).

Labour has a long history of re-introducing punishment by massive fining for everything from smoking indoors, improper roadworks signage, to hiring illegal immigrants which can cost tens of thousands of pounds. If the effect was to steer such 'criminals' away from prison and the resulting cost to the public purse that would be fine but in reality the vast majority of real criminals have no assets, don't pay those fines when imposed and thus face no sanction at all.

Justice through Seizure will not work and the job of Prison Governors is to keep people locked up, not to decide who goes there.

Blue Eyes said...

Three strikes and you're out. And I don't mean life imprisonment.

Budgie said...

Looking at the punishment, in this case prisons, is the wrong way round.

It is the low detection rates that govern criminality. Most crime detection rates are well below 50 per cent, some as low as 20 per cent. Conviction rates are also low meaning some criminals have only a 1 in 10 chance of being convicted.

As a general rule people do what they do because it makes sense to them. Finger wagging is no good. If you have only a 1 in 5 chance of being caught then it is no wonder crime is so high.

Blue Eyes said...

No, the problem is that there are a number of people who are convicted of crimes over and over again, but the courts do nothing to prevent them offending again and again.

Budgie said...

No, the main problem is not "a number of people who are convicted of crimes over and over again" but the much greater number of crimes for which no one is apprehended or convicted at all.

The early Victorians onwards made punishment much less severe, and also increased detection and conviction with an incorrupt police force. This gave us a relative crime free century.

Of course to accomplish greater detection rates there would need to be drastic changes in the way the police operate. We would need to eliminate the political crimes and the bureaucracy introduced by Liebore, so that the police can concentrate on real crime, amongst other reforms.

Anonymous said...

Agree Budgie. We've got plenty of laws to tackle everything from street drunkeness to treason - if only the police would enforce them. And here in the Met there are plenty of plods - but far too many doing 9 to 5 jobs in the Trafficked Women Unit or Domestic Violence Squad or Cycle Safety Unit. Any excuse for a cushy life rather than walk the beat and potentially get puked on by arresting a drunk.

Real people don't understand why the Met spends so much energy rousting a few Thai tarts whilst leaving domestic burglaries uninvestigated.

Blue Eyes said...

OK, the police should be better. But what's the point in prosecuting anyone if the courts are going to let that person straight back onto the streets with not so much as a flea in their ear?