Crime and Recovery
The British Home Secretary is going through a difficult time. Knife crime is increasing. The ruthlessness of those involved means that they are oblivious to the damage they cause, revel in the fear they create and, under the very pressurised British Courts, often get off with a punishment that does not begin to fit the crime. After all, terrorising people into their homes in the evenings is not what a civilised country expects. Wounding them in the street, often for small financial or material gain, is also completely unacceptable.
Home Secretary Javid is approaching the problem as a sickness and bringing together people with expertise in psychology, social deprivation, interracial harmony and so on. All good, devoted people trying to make a difference. I’m sure each and every one of them has much to contribute. And I am sure the process will fail. Why?
The cause and the cure of the knife crime epidemic are worlds apart, not just in theory but in practice, for each criminal involved. There is a case for being lenient and making punishment rehabilitative rather than drug-fuelled incarceration. We are all guilty of crime of one sort or another sometime in our lives. Our appalling childhood, unfortunate background, deprived education, or whatever, all make a good case that it was not our fault.
Unfortunately, we cannot afford to spend the time and effort on reinventing everyone guilty of crime. There simply are not the resources to do it. That is especially true now that prison is no longer a shaming experience for many. Shame has, itself, become outdated in many societies. Justification for leniency differs from one person to the next, and from one incident to another. All criminals are trying to establish an identity, to get easy money, prove their manliness, rail against the uneven distribution of rewards in the world and point to a solution whose existence they doubt. They are angry. Why didn’t their upbringing equip them for a socially cohesive world?
Obviously parents with strong ethical and moral behaviour give us the first clue. This is reinforced by our schools, especially if they are religious, where the religion sets out the expectations of its members. The society in which we lived when young was a big contributor as we went through our teens. Getting into bad company was a risk we took if we spread ourselves around too much. At the end of that unpredictable and often quite inadequate preparation for life we turned out a mixture of good behaviour, amoral standards and straightforward wickedness. What matters is the balance between these three and how any imbalance can be put right.
We are gradually learning that some people have wickedness built into them. Others adopt, probably by neglect, a lack of standards altogether. Some are naturally disciplined. Sorting who is what is time consuming and difficult. The remedies, if we get the classification right, are either relatively easy or completely impossible.
Until we have a much more accurate way of saying who, if anyone, is redeemable and who is not we are obliged to imprison the good, the bad and the dangerous in the same institution and treat them in much the same way. The result of this in the British prison system is degradation, addiction and adoption of the worst behaviours.
Until we know much more about the causes of crime we will not know the cures, Meanwhile, we should develop our prisons to be places of learning the right things, of equipping those who can be equipped for acceptable work and infusing better standards for those who are open to adopting them. To do this we need excellent First Observations over a few weeks when prisoners are all in the same block, unless extremely dangerous, and their behavior is monitored by experts.
They should then be sorted into [a] the Dangerous [b] the Irredeemable [c] the Potentially Restorable. Their cell blocks will reflect their category. Home Minister Javid’s proposed remedial programme will apply to group [c]. They will be treated differently from groups [a] and [b]. Prisoners can be moved from one group to another although such movement is discouraged unless there are exceptional circumstances.
A high standard of prison service starts with highly skilled, well paid prison staff plus a logical definition of prisoners who can be rehabilitated and those who are potentially irredeemable.
Those who care for prisoners day-to-day are the people who will make prison most effective.
That’s why exceptional prison officers are the foundation of the best prison services.