Wednesday, 29 February 2012

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.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

There's a moment in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy when the character Smiley explains that the things he talked about during an interview gave away more about his own preoccupations than they ever revealed about the interviewee, who had stayed silent throughout. I read this several years ago and it's an idea that has stayed with me, our projected motivations reflecting on ourselves, often popping up while I listen to someone trying to shout down opponents to their point of view.

One area in which this behaviour is particularly prevalent is contemporary politics. Of the two dominant parties, the Conservatives seek to punish transgressors, and force compliance of the masses through fear of reprisal, leading to security and comfort for all in a well ordered homogeneous society. Labour seek to support individuals, understanding and accepting differences which demonstrably do no societal harm, removing the need to transgress in the first place. These examples are reductive, but illustrate fairly well the core of each system, and each has been shown to have a degree of success in some areas, and be less successful in others. An example of them working well in concert is Karyn McCluskey's Community Initiative to Reduce Violence, and its handling of gangs and knife crime in Glasgow.

Recently, The Daily Mail reported on a study which seemed to show a link between lower intelligence and right wing political beliefs. This ignores the fact that some very intelligent people purportedly hold right wing beliefs. I have friends who claim to subscribe to some right wing philosophies. I say claim, because actions of theirs I have witnessed often fly in the face of these ideological tenets. Similarly, I'm not always as tolerant and/or accepting as I'd perhaps like. Permanently enthusiastic people, for example, tend to wear me out.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is that it ignores the fact that many right wing politicians are intelligent, and are absolutely aware of what the consequences of their 'common sense' policies are, but forge ahead knowing that they will be popular with a significant number of voters, due to a lack of education/interest/interest in education on the subject of politics, and, equally cynically, that there may be investment opportunities in the future. In many cases, there is historical evidence that gives the lie to promises made by these policies. They would HAVE to be fools to have chosen a career in politics while being unaware of the results of strategies previously implemented. Instead they are deliberately perpetuating a system which increases financial disparity, increases alienation, increases fear...

Ken Clarke's proposed sentencing reforms of a couple of years ago are wonderfully illustrative of this very point. The reforms contained several ideas which have been proven to work, both in reducing rates of re-offending, and reducing the prison population in general. Implicit in the reforms was the acknowledgement that significant numbers sentenced to prison are suffering mental health problems, and would be more appropriately dealt with by other institutions. Also important to note is that the proposal was welcomed by prison reformers. This is in stark contrast to the current proposed reforms to the NHS, which have been almost universally condemned.

The prison reforms were never implemented. Cameron 'bowed to public pressure', and rejected the proposal, rather than explaining why it was a good idea, or indeed ploughing on regardless, as he seems intent on doing with the NHS bill. Of course, Labour cannot be said to be blameless with regards the prison situation, as we have to question why they didn't implement the same changes proposed by Mr Clarke while they held power. Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Justice Secretary has now admitted that the ideas were good ones, and Frances Crook (Yes, yes, an ironic surname, one supposes), Labour Party member, and Director of The Howard League For Reform, has long looked to her party to apply it's traditional values to this most contentious of areas. My question is, why must it remain contentious? There is a wealth of proofs that support these reforms, but they need to be communicated to the public. Rather than 'soft options', they should be presented as what they are, the most successful ways to manage and reduce crime and criminals. The public should also be reminded that it is they who pay for the poor management of this system, not least through tax. In 2010, the average annual cost in England and Wales of housing one prisoner was 34000, at a time when the prison population reached a record high, exceeding 85000...

One irony here is that those who subscribe to right wing views due to low intelligence reportedly do so because it makes them feel 'safe', but are, along with everyone else, actually less safe while governed by right wing policies. Another is that the political judgements we make, our projected motivations, reveal as much about ourselves as individuals as they do our view of society.