Monday, June 26, 2006

Doomed To More Crime

By Janet Daley

Why are we all banging our heads against the wall, trying to come up with a cure for our law-and-order problem, when the answer has been on offer for a decade? Tony Blair utters the most insidious claptrap about rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, when the justice system should not "favour" anyone. (Justice is blindfolded, remember?)

Today, David Cameron will propose a homegrown Bill of Rights to replace the foreign-born Human Rights Act, as if national ownership of the law were the solution rather than simply the beginning of the argument.

Mr Blair was doomed from the start on law and order. Once he had uttered that self-cancelling slogan, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", he was locked into the mindset that he would now like to repudiate if only he had the political nerve.

To approach law enforcement on the premise that all crime is "caused" by social circumstances is to lose the battle before it begins. That is what ordinary people know and what Mr Blair would like to say, but in his speech last week, he funked it.

He implied that there was something deeply wrong with the philosophy that underpinned the criminal justice system, but somehow that question of basic philosophy got lost in a blizzard of procedural changes and confusion about civil liberties - and he left untouched the fundamental problem of a system that most people now see as profoundly out of touch with its purpose.

It was possible to hear the luminously obvious stated yet again last week at a conference organised by Politeia and the Manhattan Institute, the think tank behind New York's law-and-order miracle.

The American police spokesmen, retelling it all for the zillionth time, sounded so positive, so confident, so optimistic - so unlike our own defensive, whingeing criminal justice establishment busily blaming the press, or the politicians, or the public itself, for what seems to be its endemic failure.

Some of us are tired of hearing ourselves say it, but it is still true: we, in which I include politicians of all parties, know what the answer is to this problem.

I have lost count of the number of Home Office ministers and opposition spokesmen who have made their pilgrimages to William Bratton, New York's famous former police chief, to ask, like questing travellers in an Arabian legend, "What is the secret?" - and been duly and patiently told.

Virtually everyone who influences public policy in these matters can recite passages from James Q Wilson's "broken windows" theory of law enforcement.

The principles are so clear and so patently effective: it is crime prevention that matters to quality of life. If you act against the small offences that create a sense of civil disorder - what the British call hooliganism and anti-social behaviour - you prevent the bigger crimes that are bred by a culture of neglect and community breakdown.

In New York, they started by arresting the guys who jumped over the turnstiles in the subway instead of paying, and ended up turning a murder capital into the safest big city in America.

So here is the real mystery. Why hasn't it happened here? Why do British police still act as if the "little" crimes and the epidemic of commonplace destructiveness in the streets are beneath their notice? Why do they not accept that imposing order, as Mr Bratton said again last week, is an essential step to preventing crime? And why do the courts not actively support that concept of policing?

Because there is a lack of political will. Why is this so? And, more to the point, why is the will lacking here when it is not in the United States? Because public officials in America do not suffer from historical class guilt: the guilt that is embodied in that Blairite aphorism about the "causes of crime". This is where Mr Cameron's idea about a Bill of Rights comes in.

In the United States, constitutional rights are guaranteed as part of the 18th-century model of a social contract between the state and the people. The elected government undertakes to enforce the law, and the citizen undertakes to obey it.

Fundamental to this is the notion that the citizen is free to make decisions about whether or not he will commit crime.

Without that assumption - that individuals (unless they are truly mentally unfit) are responsible for their own actions - the entire logic of the system breaks down. So long as we accept the doctrine of socially determined criminality - that if a crime is committed, we are all at fault - we will never, ever be in a position to demand effective prosecution of criminals.

But, of course, many of us do not accept it. Law-abiding people, especially those who are poor and disadvantaged themselves, do not generally believe it is their fault when someone else commits a crime. This view is a self-indulgent, and deeply patronising, luxury of the privileged for whom the acceptance of the burden of guilt is a class shibboleth. Like so much else in British life, it comes down to snobbery.

To refuse to accept the guilt that makes you, a respectable citizen, responsible for criminality, is to mark yourself as a downmarket member of the tabloid rabble. So, bizarrely, social acceptance in enlightened circles requires even people who themselves came from poor, deprived backgrounds, and who did not become criminals, to deny that the poor and deprived might be capable of controlling their own impulses.

Of course, we must deal, as a society, with the problems that can lead people into crime; but that does not have to entail being excessively, irresponsibly lenient with those who have been led.

What follows from this is a disastrous fatalism: we must resign ourselves to the fact that we will never be able to reduce crime until we have solved the social problems of deprivation and poverty. But one thing they have learnt definitively in America, as Mr Bratton says repeatedly, is that good policing affects behaviour.

In other words, even people who are potential criminals can be influenced to make other choices if the community, through its approach to policing, asserts its will. Politicians talk endlessly about "respect" and the role it must play in promoting civil order.

They talk, too, of self-respect (or "self-esteem", as it is known) being a necessary part of this. What could be more essential to self-respect than the belief that you are responsible, under the law, for your own actions?



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