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The Fear Factory


8:00 am - March 12th 2010

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The “Fear Factory” is a new film about the criminal justice system. Watch the trailer or find out more here. This is a guest post by Joanna Natasegara.

On releasing “The Fear Factory” at a closed screening in Central London last week, the Bulger case was history – the hair-trigger cause of the youth justice crisis which the film shows unfolding over the past two decades. This weeks events have shown it’s more real, more relevant than ever – and more worryingly, that we’ve learnt little from the past.

Despite knowing full well that a punitive climate, stoked by a distorted fear of crime has lead to a doubling of our prison population and rates of re-offending as high as 90%, our educated friends in Westminster have done nothing to change this. So why not? Could it be because fear actually helps them… ?

In the 1990’s law and order burst onto the political agenda as way to grab votes and Michael Howard, home secretary when Bulger’s killers were sentenced, led the way – bending to public and tabloid pressure and extending the killers sentences. A canny Blair, realised that crime, and especially youth crime was a big winner with the red tops and if he was going to win the election he needed them on-side.

The Sun’s then Executive Editor told us in a cringe-worthy moment for anyone who bought Blair’s hype at the time:

He ran, “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” past me and asked “do you think the press will go for this one?

They did; In a big way, and NuLabour™, took Howard’s precedent to the max. For example our exec editor at the Sun wrote a leader saying yobs should be frogmarched to cashpoint machines and within a week it was Labour policy. Some 4,300 new criminal offences have been introduced in the last decade and today we’re paying the price. It costs up to £250,000 to keep a young offender in custody and as few as 10% stay on the straight and narrow when they get out.

Meanwhile, some states in the US are investing heavily in programmes that have now been proven successful at re-habilitating young offenders and scrapped plans to build new prisons. This should make us pause for thought but the re-emergence of Bulger and resultant coverage ahead of a general election doesn’t bode well – both Tories and Labour have pledged to build more prisons and the Ministry of Justice has just signed off on a private sector contract to build and run the first Titan-style prison for young offenders.

Alongside Ministers and MPs in the film we also interviewed victims, young offenders and killers. None of them pulled any punches (probably why broadcasters won’t touch anything but a hacked down version). Off the back of the film, 47 national organisation joined a coalition asking for an end to this ‘arms race on political tough talk’; The Liberal Democrats have pledged not to use fear as an electioneering tool – in stark contrast to the Conservatives and Labour. Maria Eagle MP (Ministry of Justice) refused to make the same pledge at our screening, with Labour’s new advert on crime out – it’s not hard to see why. At least she had the courage to come to the screening, unlike Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary, Dominic Grieve MP, who was conveniently called away at the last minute on a three line whip and unable to defend himself on what many will see as a direct endorsement of Chris Grayling’s “misleading” statements on crime figures.

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Reader comments


Good piece.

IMO, one of the worst things that Howard did was abolish the British right to silence.

Most people go “so what?” But the right to silence is essential to prevent self-incrimination by innocent and guilty alike. Watch this video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wXkI4t7nuc

Sounds fascinating, I’ll check it out.

Whilst I support a call for honesty rather than scaremongering in politics, I can’t see it working until we sort out one problem. The fact people can believe unsubstantiated facts (admittedly, as newspaper circulation continues to gently fall, this might suggest people are less happy to do so). So the key has to be teaching people to question things better – not the system we have at the moment where facts are taught as truth.

Will look out for the film though.

As I feature in the film, and possess a undiluted copy, I was pretty hacked off at the hacked down version shown in London. When young offenders or adults enter the Criminal Justice System, it is not censored but what you get is the raw truth in your face. Who are these commissioning editors to demand we can only show the public sanitised versions of real life? We prefer to live a lie, then wonder why we are not being told the truth.

It was a shame that Dominic Grieve, who plays the Westminster Village Idiot in the film, got cold feet at the last minute and ducked the screening and subsequent Q&A session claiming that there was a 3 line whip. Maria Eagle, also in the film, who did attend and take part in the Q&A stated that there was no 3 line whip! I knew when I saw and heard what Dominc Grieve had to say, that Dave Cameron would not let him attend to be grilled. Given that some of the youngsters end up in prison for assault and criminal damage, I was surprised to hear Dominic Grieve admit that he had committed the criminal offences of assault and criminal damage. It was not clear whether the admissions refer to his Bullingdon Club days or another time in his life. But, it is clear that he is not Shadow Justice Secretary on merit! If the Tories win the general election, how can you have a Justice Secretary who has committed assault and criminal damage in charge of a prison system which houses people who have committed the same offences? We are not talking about a spot of under age drinking or smoking pot! Besides there is no statute of limitations in this country and it is open for the police to investigate his confession and perhaps prosecute him.

The Sun’s Executive Editor made a statement saying he is not sure whether the papers should lead or educate. I suggested that they should tell the truth, and the same goes for politicians. Joshua Rozenberg has said on the BBC that it is a breath of fresh air that Ben’s Prison Blog does not pull punches. It is a shame that too many prefer to keep smelling the stale air of sanitised truth.

5. Shatterface

Good article.

I’m not sure what disgusts me more: tha massive increase in the prison population or New Labour’s obvious pride in it.

The current penal system doesn’t tackle crime, it compounds it. Once you are in the system you can never get out.

“stoked by a distorted fear of crime has lead to a doubling of our prison population ”

Given violent crime is apparently significantly down over the same period, couldn’t one say that the policy has worked?

Exactly #6, what is important is crime rates, not prison numbers or re-offending. Something the piece doesn’t bother to mention.

Did the US states cut their crime rates? You don’t seem to care.

8. Golden Gordon

I’m not sure what disgusts me more: tha massive increase in the prison population or New Labour’s obvious pride in it.

The current penal system doesn’t tackle crime, it compounds it. Once you are in the system you can never get out.
I agree but the government has 3 problems.
1. Most of the public want more offenders locked up. If they did turn around their policy they would be sitting ducks for the press.
2. The Tories want even more people in jail, therefore how do they counter an argument put forward by their political opponents.
3. It only takes one re offending villain to be brought to the attention of the media and were back to broken Britain.
Do you think it will be any better with Tories.
The only political party who has the courage to look at crime problems with an open mind are the lib dems.
Another reason to hope for a hung parliament

“Despite knowing full well that a punitive climate, stoked by a distorted fear of crime has lead to a doubling of our prison population and rates of re-offending as high as 90%, our educated friends in Westminster have done nothing to change this. So why not? Could it be because fear actually helps them… ?”

What “punitive climate” ? pointless ASBOs, endless “warnings”, lenient sentences, early release schemes, the criminal justice system has never been less punitive. And when will the left learn that you cannot reduce recidivism, leftwing “interventions” have been tried and re-tried continually for the last 40 years and failed. The only reliable predictor of a reduction in criminal behaviour is the offender reaching the age of 35, after which criminal activity drops off markedly.

@7 Repeat offending is important because criminality is not evenly distributed, a small number of repeat offenders are responsible for the majority of crime.

This is topical to The Fear Factory… Children under 12 ‘can’t be criminals’

11. Matt Munro

If you are old enough to murder someone, you’re old enough to be a criminal. The age of responsibility should be lowered if anything

Greg – Reoffending figures are the key indicator of whether rehabilitation is working which is and must be reiterated as the primary function of the system.

Matt – there is clear evidence that the system has become significantly more punitive – all the evidence is laid out in the full film. And in fact, since you agree that reoffending is an important factor, alternative interventions show reoffending rates that are almost half those of custodial (or more punitive) sentences even for very similar offences.

The film also covers the fact that the public are not that punitive once the options are explained properly to them, when this is added to an explanation of the financial implications of the Fear Factory, they generally agree we should find alternatives.


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