Rising prosperity cuts crime, not putting more people in prison


9:05 am - July 2nd 2010

by Sunny Hundal    


      Share on Tumblr

There is a particularly insidious strain within the Labour party, heavily influenced by small-c conservatism, that parrots right-wing-nuttery views on social issues. They are usually against immigration (Frank Field), would love to give police lots of powers (Charles Clarke, Blunkett), and happy to call for the ‘lock em up’ approach to prisons (Alan Johnson, Jack Straw).

It has gotten to a stage where, last night on BBC Question Time, Iain Duncan Smith sounded vastly more coherent and intelligent on prison reform than Alan Johnson. Even though, I think, it’s a strategic ploy.

The New Labour and Tory-right approach is summed up in two ways: (1) banging up people in prison works (crime fell under Labour); (2) it’s cheaper than having them roam about in society. But both are wrong approaches.

As this paper by Richard Gardside for the Crime and Society Foundation concludes:

Thinking across a broader policy terrain, we have started to explore what a new agenda on crime and harm might look like. It is one that takes seriously the relationship between a range of
violent offences, poverty and inequality. It is one that also takes seriously the relationship between victimisation and a wider set of power inequalities in society.

What brought crime down during New Labour years wasn’t necessarily locking increasing numbers of people in prison (especially since it led to super-high reoffending rates) but rising prosperity.

Reducing inequality and poverty = reduced crime.

As Neil Robertson points out:

Around 50% of prisoners ran away from home as a child and 27% were taken into care. 30% truanted from school, 49% of men were excluded and 52% left without any qualifications. 65% of prisoners have the numeracy levels of 11-year olds, 48% have the reading age of 11-year-olds and 67% were unemployed before imprisonment. 32% of prisoners were homeless, over 70% suffer from two or more mental disorders and around 60% had abused drugs in the past year (Bromley Briefings, p20).

On the second approach: the ‘lock em up and throw away the key‘ approach which just weighs up the cost of locking someone up versus keeping them in prison is deeply flawed.

It doesn’t take into account the human cost of locking people up for most of their lives (people who will mostly be working class), and neither does it consider whether rehabilitation is cheaper or not.

It is simply a bad approach and given that Michael Howard and Melanie Phillips are also echoing Alan Johnson – lefties and Labour should be alarmed.

Last point: my feeling is that the Labour position this is a strategic ploy. The Labour Uncut editors make a case for that, and while I see the point, I think it backfires for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s too early to try and inflict damage on the government when they’re still in the honeymoon period. It makes Labour look petty and unprincipled, as Alan Johnson did last night on Question Time. It will also say to potential Labour voters that the party hasn’t changed at all.

Secondly, the Tory right are whining and moaning but I doubt they’ll be foolhardy enough to try and inflict damage on their own government this early. The front-bench is united on the issue, despite Michael Howard’s lone rantings. The Tory-right is always quickest off the mark to complain because they want the proposals to be watered down. But I doubt this will turn into a big revolt. So it could turn into an own-goal for Labour.

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  


About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
· Other posts by


Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Crime

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


Reader comments


Nu Labor – in foreign as well as domestic policy – was terrified of what Murdoch would say in his papers. His editorials were their policy.

But, as the last election showed, Rupe is no longer all-powerful. Now his papers seem to be doing their best to ingratiate themselves with the Coalition, not vice versa. Law and Order, non anti-EU, distancing itself from America and the neo-cons. Interesting times.

There are a few problems with this analysis. First off, inequality didn’t reduce during the period of the New Labour government, it increased. Poverty amongst the very poorest actually worsened. So it’s hard to see how you make the link between rising prosperity and the fall in crime. Then, on the macro historical scale, a moment’s thought shows that the idea is absurd.

In 1950, when we were a much more class-divided and far less affluent society, reported crime was running at around 1000 per 100,000 of population. By 2004 it was running at around 11,500 per 100,000 of population. The richer society became, the more crime rose.

Take a look at this graph showing how crime increased steadily through the 50s, 60s and 70s and imagine overlaying another mapping rise in GDP…. it would be a pretty good fit.

Crime falls with a larger prison population for the simple reason of incapacitation.

It’s not a “solution” except in that limited – but to victims (who are overwhelmingly the perps’ poor neighbours, not well-off people like me) important – sense.

I’m afraid I don’t buy the idea that poverty must result in crime. Being poor doesn’t compel one to go out and clout somebody or break into their house. Acts of criminality are acts of free will. Those who commit crimes know that they are wrong (with the possible exception of those who are mentally ill). They simply lack the necessary personal morality to restrain themselves. Why is this? Plenty of people born into poverty don’t feel the urge to go out and break the law.

6. Alisdair Cameron

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. The tories will, either by design (as they do contain some ‘wet’, wiser voices), or by accident will get some things right: that’s right both in moral terms and right in terms of being backed by evidence.
For Labour to oppose these few instances on notionally strategic grounds is stupid, and paints Labour back into an illiberal, authoritarian, Mail/Murdoch-appeasing corner, while also jettisoning notions of principle (mind those went a while back for the New labour cohort).
You attack your enemies for the many bad things they do, not scupper the odd good thing that they do.Tribal in the worst sense.

7. Luis Enrique

There is a large and important difference between the long-run and short-run here.

Prosperity, education and improved social care are long-run mechanism. Slinging existing criminals in jail is short-run.

Government policy has to think about the long-run, but it cannot neglect the short-run either.

Those who commit crimes know that they are wrong

Actually, a very large number of people who commit crimes know they are illegal, but don’t actually believe they’re wrong, especially in their particular circumstances. I’ve never met a drug user who thought their drug use was morally wrong. Loads of people seem to feel that speeding is not only not morally wrong, but some kind of basic human right. Even people who commit severe crimes of violence usually have some bullshit rationalisation for why it wasn’t morally wrong in their particular case.

Dunc,

Speeding is not crime, it is an offence. I am not sure of the status of using drugs, but nowadays possession rarely leads to criminal charges. As these are not the sort of things that get you sent to prison in the first place…

I have no doubt there are those who feel legitimate in commiting crimes, but they are not the same as those who feel legitimate speeding. Admittedly, there may be an argument for zero-tolerance, to stop people ever getting comfortable breaking the law, but is that what you were getting at?

No, what I was getting at is that people who commit crimes frequently do not believe that that are wrong. I thought I made that perfectly clear in my first sentence, but I guess there’s no telling the lengths some pretentious, pedantic arsehole will go to be a smartarse on the internet…

@5 – you mean they lack the personal morality to which you subscribe.

There are plenty of competing moralities out there; whilst most would say they regard thievery as “wrong”, it rather depends on your definition of thievery.

People invent terms like “fraud” so that middle class crooks are not so tarred with the same brush, whilst most (Western) people perform astonishing feats of mental gymnastics such that buying a pair of trainers which some poor waif made for $0.03 / hour does not constitute theft, whilst pinching a loaf to put food on your starving family (or nicking a telly to feed your junk addiction) is worthy of jail time.

To me, the question of “personal morality” is vexed for this reason. It appears to be mostly about defending private property rights, which frankly is a load of old toss.

@10 – I understood you.

But I always wrote “arse hole” and not “arsehole”. 😛

Prosperity is more likely to increase crime, because in our current system prosperity comes from capitalism and the way that capitalism works is that you can only succeed by someone else failing. We have seen this taken to the extreme in the Thatcher years, it was encouraged in the Blair years and it will get worse in the ConDem years.

Marketing is not based on providing what people really need nor on the best, most well made product. It is about screwing the consumer: making them buy things they don’t want, making consumers pay exorbitant prices for cheaply (hence shoddily) made goods. It is not just manufacturing, it is services too (look at financial services). Many businesses sail very close to the wind, legally. They know that consumer laws exist protecting the consumer, but they also know that these laws restrict their ability to make profits. So they push the boundary as far as they can until someone takes them to court.

We have a culture where there is no respect for the customer, no respect for anyone else. Everyone is a target for exploitation. It is a dog-eat-dog world.

We do not have a culture that being good at what you do is rewarded. In the marketplace it is not the most well made, best designed product that sells the best (because it is usually the most expensive). We have a culture that attacks those people who succeed because they are clever or who have worked hard. Consequently we have a culture that does not respect ability, only how good you are at screwing other people.

So if kids are brought up believing that someone else’s loss is your gain, that the only way to succeed is to screw someone else, is it no wonder that crime goes up? The fact that crime has gone down in the Labour years is simply because mopre people were locked up. But that is not the solution, the solution is for people not to want to break the law, and that requires a culture shift in the very way that our prosperity is created.

It has gotten to a stage where, last night on BBC Question Time, Iain Duncan Smith sounded vastly more coherent and intelligent on prison reform than Alan Johnson.

OMG.

Sunny is taking a non-tribal stance. He is saying that it is possible for a Tory to be right about something.

What is happening? Has the planet started spinning on a different axis?

All the old LC certainties are gone and nothing can ever be the same again.

I feel faint.

Even though, I think, it’s a strategic ploy.

Oh.

Thank goodness.

That’s better.

15. Luis Enrique

the way that capitalism works is that you can only succeed by someone else failing

it’s trivially easy to show that’s not true, but I doubt you’d be interested. I wonder what it’s like to live ones life fervently believing in such frightful rubbish.

I suppose, before somebody else does, I should say we all believe rubbish of some variety or other, but still.

16. Luis Enrique

here’s what one LSE blogger has to say on the matter:

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/?p=3242

(I think that’s a relatively new blog, poss one to add to the RSS)

[15] LOL Luis you really are a wag.

So, let’s see, during the Thatcher years there were pension reforms and what did we find? Since the pension companies were now allowed to screw people that is exactly what they did. We got a big pension scandal where millions of people were screwed out of hundreds of millions (maybe billions) of pounds through pension mis-selling. The same Thatcher regime reformed insurance and that gave us endowment mortgages and yet more mis-selling and people finding that the fine print said “we never really promised you the money, but now we have your home”. What about the asset strippers who bought up UK companies solely for the pension schemes, took the money and closed down the company? Remember those scandals. Hardly working hard to do the best thing, eh?

Gosh, I have identified billions of £ screwed out of people, all sanctioned by the government and I have only touched upon two areas of financial services. But just to reassure you, I am not against capitalism per se, just against rampant, free-market, screw the customer for a quick profit, capitalism. The way to prevent that is regulation and strong consumer laws: exactly what we do not have now.

It was truly depressing watching QT last night and seeing duncan-Smith coming out with thoughtful and intelligent comments on the subject while Johnson disgracefully resorted to accusing the Tories of being “soft on crime”.
And that Labour Uncut piece is appalling.

It doesn’t take into account the human cost of locking people up for most of their lives (people who will mostly be working class), and neither does it consider whether rehabilitation is cheaper or not.

It’s much, much worse than that. The ‘prison is cheaper’ approach also embodies two different forms of injustice. It’s unjust to extend a convict’s sentence beyond what was appropriate to the crime he committed purely on the grounds of preventing reoffending, and it’s doubly unjust to do this to people who wouldn’t have reoffended – even the grimmest prison-works literature doesn’t suggest a 100% reoffending rate.

It’s just a really bad way of thinking about penal policy.

If rising prosperity cuts crime then why has the recession coincided with a dramatic drop in the homicide rate?

@5: I’m afraid I don’t buy the idea that poverty must result in crime. Being poor doesn’t compel one to go out and clout somebody or break into their house.

No, but it does make one statistically more likely to commit certain types of crime. Congratulations on building a straw man and knocking it down.

Acts of criminality are acts of free will. Those who commit crimes know that they are wrong (with the possible exception of those who are mentally ill).

People — whether or not they are mentally ill — are physical objects made of fundamental particles that obey the same laws of nature as everything else. Fundamentally, they have not more free will than a pebble rolling down a hill (though it is often a useful approximation to assume they do).

Reducing inequality and poverty = reduced crime.

All the figures I have seen suggest that the crime rate went up almost continuously from the 1920s to the 1990s.

May I infer that during this period, the country became poorer and less equal?

23. Chaise Guevara

“If rising prosperity cuts crime then why has the recession coincided with a dramatic drop in the homicide rate?”

I can’t explain the drop off the top of my head, but I can explain why the recession might not result in a rise in homicide.

Homicide in this country generally isn’t committed by people trying to make ends meet: in other words, people generally don’t kill someone so they can steal their cash and pay their mortgage. It’s more often due to mental illness or personal emotion (someone murdering their cheating partner, for example), and these things aren’t really linked to the economy.

Now, gang murders and the like ARE linked to poverty, but it’s a long-term thing. It’s not a case of “I lost my job due to the recession, so I’m going to join a gang and stab people”, it’s the effect of people growing up in an environment that offers few prospects and where crime is the norm. The recession won’t really affect that.

For hundreds of years incarceration has been the prefered action for dealing with crime.

It is clear that this has not solved the problem of crime.

It is a very rare case that someone goes to prison and comes out a better person.

The definition of insanity is to do something over and over and expect a different result. Why is it so difficult for people to not see that incarceration does not stop crime.

It is a very sad testament to the humane race as a whole that we have not worked towards a sustainable solution to this problem.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Rising prosperity cuts crime, not putting more people in prison http://bit.ly/aeN3qE

  2. P. S. Wong

    RT @libcon: Rising prosperity cuts crime, not putting more people in prison http://bit.ly/aeN3qE

  3. Jose Aguiar

    RT @libcon Rising prosperity cuts crime, not putting more people in prison http://bit.ly/9qQf10

  4. Teresa Cairns

    RT @libcon: Rising prosperity cuts crime, not putting more people in prison http://bit.ly/aeN3qE

  5. Kate B

    Very good piece on the prison game and Alan Johnson not yet realising he's dead. http://bit.ly/dfBxNF

  6. sunny hundal

    Rising prosperity cuts crime, not putting more people in prison http://bit.ly/9qQf10

  7. House Of Twits

    RT @sunny_hundal Rising prosperity cuts crime, not putting more people in prison http://bit.ly/9qQf10

  8. Neil Robertson

    RT @sunny_hundal: Rising prosperity cuts crime, not putting more people in prison http://bit.ly/9qQf10 <<Co-signed, and then some

  9. Labour must stop attacking the government from the right « The Bleeding Heart Show

    […] off the coalition’s credibility and win a few easy headlines with the usual suspects. But, as Sunny rightly points out, all it says to the rest of us is that the Labour Party hasn’t changed at […]

  10. Parenting Blog » Council set for crackdown on antisocial behaviour on estates

    […] Rising prosperity cuts crime, not putting more people in prison … […]

  11. David Skelton

    RT @sunny_hundal: Rising prosperity cuts crime, not putting more people in prison http://bit.ly/9qQf10

  12. Labour has turned into a headless attack-dog | Liberal Conspiracy

    […] off the coalition’s credibility and win a few easy headlines with the usual suspects. But, as Sunny rightly points out, all it says to the rest of us is that the Labour Party hasn’t changed at […]

  13. Liberal sellouts need to STFU – now is not the right time for prison reform « crunkfish.com

    […] work” argument. Working around this, Sunny Hundal from Liberal Conspiracy writes that “rising prosperity cuts crime, not putting more people in prison”. As rising prosperity is relative, I’d be interested to see a historical comparison between […]





Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.