Sunday, 15 April 2012

Where Next for Criminal Justice?

There is no criminal justice if society fails to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent, between vicious crimes and petty offences, or between remorseless perpetrators and those who deeply repent their transgressions. To deploy force and punishment indiscriminately would not strengthen public safety. Ultimately, citizens need protection not just from those who seek to break the law, but also from those who act in the name of enforcing the law.

Unfortunately, with sensationalist crime reporting and politicians’ obsession with appearing to be ‘tough on crime’, misguided emotions all too often trump reliable analysis when criminal policies are argued over. The anguish of every high profile victim of crime is swiftly turned into another launch pad for a ‘robust’ response irrespective of the likely impact of the hastily formulated proposals.

Against this backdrop, a much needed antidote has arrived in the form of Where Next for Criminal Justice?, a new book by David Faulkner and Ros Burnett, (Bristol, Polity Press: 2012. If anyone wants to have any serious credibility in putting forward solutions to criminal justice problems, a firm grasp of the facts and ideas set out in this book would be indispensable.

Faulkner and Burnett have drawn on substantial practical experience and academic research to produce a clear and cogent reminder of what the real issues are. They do not dispute that some can whip up public anxiety, not to mention outrage, to back all kinds of intervention. All they ask is for those who claim to want to cut crime to engage with the facts. For example, evidence tell us that changes to sentencing policy actually have a very limited impact on reducing crime; an increase of 15% in prison population might at best reduce crime by 1%; a 10% increase in number of police officers might reduce crime by 3%; and restorative approaches are not only generally welcome by victims, but have been found to reduce re-offending by nearly 14%. Furthermore, studies have confirmed that re-offending rates for those engaged in rehabilitative treatment compare favourably against corresponding measures for control groups.

When the government is daily insisting public expenditure must be more drastically cut, it is imperative that policy makers weigh intervention options in terms of their real impact and cost effectiveness. Prevention through education and social support so that people are not left to the margins of society with little self-esteem or too much pent-up anger is far more efficient than piling far more resources on crime fighting down the road.

At the same time, criminals who slip through current preventative measures need to be dealt with. Apart from the incorrigible minority who would not desist from causing harm to others – and who must therefore be detained for as long as necessary to protect others – the majority of offenders are likely to respond most to having someone who believes in their capacity for improvement and who acts accordingly to help them acquire better self-control and develop their life skills. Whether in prison or in the community, rehabilitative work should be guided by what evidence has uncovered as efficacious.

Reading this book, I was struck by the fact that since the resurgence of widening inequalities in the UK from the 1980s on, “new criminal offences have been created at the astonishing rate of about 150 a year for almost 20 years.” In these decades, the UK overtook Turkey in putting a higher percentage of its population in prison. Growing socio-economic disparity in our country has bred distrust and tension. The hysterical response of criminalising more activities, spreading the net of suspicion, disparaging rehabilitation, and accelerating the rate of incarceration, has only left many people still fretful of living in unsafe communities.

It is time for politicians, policy commentators, and criminal justice agents, to take a serious look at what the evidence tells us, and rethink what should really be done.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Free Speech Conundrum

Is there an absolute freedom to say whatever one wishes to say? And can it never be curtailed except when it is exercised to interrupt someone else who is already speaking? If so, it would follow that whoever manages to open his mouth first would be able to carry on speaking, with the knowledge that anyone interrupting him would be judged to be in the wrong and subject to punishment.

That would appear to be the rationale when a most venerated university in the UK informed a research student that he would be suspended for over two years for reading out a poem when a politician was speaking. But surely no one can expect to say whatever they want, for however long they want, regardless of what they are actually saying.

Of course the great John Locke declared that “the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth, and of every particular man’s goods and person.” He illustrated his case by pointing out that while he would disagree with a Roman Catholic who claimed that a piece of bread was the body of Christ, he would be against any attempt to forbid him preaching or professing his belief, because it “does no injury thereby to his neighbour”.

Unfortunately, Locke’s distinction gets into difficulties when what is professed and preached contradicts what others may consider harmful. What if someone wants to tell his gullible congregation to embrace as holy water what we understand to be concentrated sulphuric acid? Or a person tells his young children that jumping off a tall building will guarantee their passage to heaven and eternal happiness? An orator who informs his listeners that anyone who fails to obstruct mix-race or same-sex relationships in their neighbourhood would burn in hell for allowing sins to spread?

Should all such people be allowed to speak without interruption? What if they manage to convince their listeners to act on the harmful falsehoods they propagate? Ultimately we cannot get away from the burden of verity. We have a responsibility to differentiate truth claims along a spectrum of justifiable beliefs – from those which unless strong contrary evidence can be clearly and consistently adduced have to be accepted as indisputable, through claims which on balance should be granted on current evidence, claims which are understandably contested without any clear-cut conclusion, to those which no one in a reasonable state of mind can be expected to embrace.

If we refuse to recognise that the legitimacy of speech has to be linked to an objective assessment of the truth of its contents, especially relating to what might protect or injure others, then tragically anything goes. Indeed it is this refusal that has led to public policies which enable parents with dubious views to bring their children up to harbour vicious hatred of other races, to consider the murder of one’s religious enemies as a passport to heaven, or to reject life-saving blood transfusion on the grounds that it is against the will of God.

A similar tendency in politics has paved the way for deception and distortion to spread in the name of the freedom of speech: denial of historical records of grotesque treatment of ethnic minorities, rejection of scientific proof of climate change being accelerated by human activities, pretence that the continued redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich is not harming the poor, or insistence that the prospect of unprecedented debt would not make many young people without rich parents think twice before pursuing higher education.

Peddlers of harmful lies, whether dressed up as religiously sincere or politically committed, should be rigorously opposed. Don’t let them hide behind the sanctity of ‘free speech’. Who are we to judge? As a society we are called upon to judge all the time – what is harmful, what is not? We may judge wrongly at times, but when we do, we know we can rely on others to challenge us. We then have to respond by examining the reasonableness of their case. What is patently unreasonable is to declare that any attempt to obstruct someone speaking in any forum must be wrong and severely punished. Sometimes an act of defiance deserves praise.