It started with serial killers. Or maybe it didn't. Maybe before that, it was the idea of death.
My Mum tells me that, when she used to read me bedtime stories ('28 years old, I was' etc) I repeatedly asked to hear about death. It was a subject which fascinated me. A state of otherness that nobody could describe, but that everyone would experience.
Around age 10 I began to get interested in serial killers. If murder is the worst crime somebody can commit, prematurely sending someone to this other state, what sort of person could repeatedly commit it? Is impelled to perform the act again and again, refining and honing, perfecting, tailoring the experience to suit themselves? How deviant!
From there, it was a matter of degrees. By the time I was ready to go to university, I was interested in all crime. I read mysteries and detective fiction. I followed news reports about drug smuggling operations being 'busted', about celebrities discovered not paying their taxes, or using 'hookers', about Doctors found to be administering overdoses of diamorphine to their elderly patients... Of course I was still interested in killers, but they were at the extreme end of a broader question What does it take to be a criminal? For most of us, the answer is simply 'being caught'.
It often surprises me how few people accept that they indulge/have indulged in criminal behaviour. Drinking under-age, pocketing an eye-liner from Boots, downloading a film or album, walking off with erroneously excessive change, speeding, taking stationary from work, or an experimental puff on a 'funny cigarette'...
Often we excuse these behaviours as young people pushing their boundaries (drinking, drugs, shoplifting), or because 'everybody does it' (speeding, stationary theft, accepting extra change), some result in financial losses for the victim, others only affect the perpetrator, but they are all criminal activities. That is not to say that I feel we shouldn't excuse them in this way, with appropriate soft penalties when discovered to demonstrate disapproval, but merely to illustrate that just because someone is a criminal does not make them a bad person.
When I talk with people about options other than prison, many first respond by extending my point beyond any comment I've made, saying 'So you don't want to send murderers to jail?'... To which I'm forced to admit, 'Well, no and yes...'.
In many cases violent offenders lack empathy, but can learn it, as evidenced by the success of the daily therapy regime in use at HMP Grendon. This is the kind of prison that we need more of, if we want prison to accomplish anything more than simply removing offenders from our streets for a finite time. It's reduction of recidivism would ease the problem of 'packed' prisons, save money long term, and result in less crime, all of which traditional prison regimes have failed to achieve. However, budget cuts in the short term are causing problems, as is general overcrowding, and threatening to put a stop to the only prison in the UK to have proven to lower re-offending rates' ability to do so.
It's just occurred to me that those who are still against the rolling out of this system may be exhibiting the same lack of empathy displayed by violent offenders. There's irony.
Those who aren't against rolling out the reforms, let me know. Let's start something.