Crime and Punishment

Posted: 21st September 2011 by admin in Angry Rants, Politics

Now, I’m not going to comment directly on the riots and their causes.

I could point out that any reference to inequality in this country has to have a giant red RELATIVE stamp marked across it; see here, the average net earnings of the top fifth were £53k and the bottom fifth were £13k. While this is a gap of around £40,000, this gap needs to be filled with free education until the age of 18, free healthcare, and various social services and amenities such as libraries and museums, or all the other civil service jobs (Inspectors, tax collectors, judges etc ) a country needs to function, and not to mention the skill set and effort it takes to be a doctor and a call-centre employee respectively. Yes there are bankers and footballers (funny how no one ever mentions footballers), but these are as much outliers as the Daily Mail-baiting guy who had 14 children by 12 different woman.

I could also mention that given the grammar and elocution of some of the interviewed rioters (and at the risk of guessing, maybe school attendance records) their anger is as legitimately to do with lack of opportunities as my ennui is due to my inability to sprout a magical horn and fly with the unicorns.

I could also mention that in a country where businesses and colleges report GCSE school leavers lack even basic work skills, that blaming issues around the EMA and HE fees for the lack of opportunities is jumping the gun a little

But I won’t get into all this as the situation is actually quite complex and the “truth” of the causes is not going to be found on the Right, which sees a rodent-like underclass who made rational choices in a libertarian paradise, nor the Left which sees poor Oliver-esque cherubs brutally cast aside by an unfeeling dystopian Oligarchy.

There's a reasonable argument in there somewhere

What I will mention however, is the direct response to the riots.

Punishment is your friend 

To paraphrase and butcher Hobbs, we sacrifice our freedom to do what we want in order to have protection against others doing what they want to us. And thus the state is born, the Lethiathan which has the power to enforce law and order at the levels an individual could not hope to. And this works really, really well. Decades of research has fairly conclusively shown when there is the potential for punishment, cooperation increases. Not because everyone is brutalised and forced to obey, but because the threat of being taken advantage of has been removed. We take distance transactions over eBay for granted because deep down you know there are mechanisms to enforce the contract with the seller. This is why prosperity follows law and order; why set up a business if larger men with guns can simply take it off you (This also has ramifications for the legitimacy of authority, but that’s another matter), and because of this the concept of law benefits the weak far more than the strong. Indeed it’s also why the tribes in places like New Guinea initially welcomed colonial troops as here was a force that could enforce peace between them, a power than individual tribes could never possess (see also). Don’t think of punishment in terms of prison and flogging, think of it as removing the need to protect yourself because the state will do it for you. It’s the reason, even when driving through Liverpool, no one needs to do more than figuratively ride shotgun.

it’s cheaper to pay taxes for a police force than fuel this bad boy, and spent uranium shells don't come cheap

Still, Liverpool, why take chances

Now I say this because, if there’s one thing that angered me about the riots, it wasn’t the destruction of property or even the commentators (who were clearly watching a different riot) and their insistence there was some form of political motivation, it was the very real fact that for a few nights the streets of some of the UKs major cities had been abandoned to chavs. I think this needs to be made clear, as one of the main failing of the police was they treated the events like a protest, and not general lawlessness, and indeed treated it like a protest post-the inquiries into kettling and such. This is important to remember when discussing what the response should be, i.e. this isn’t the  rounding up dissidents a la Iran (despite some more excitable members of the left wing trying to associate the riots with the Arab Spring): this is a response to looters, nothing more and nothing less.

What has come out subsequently from various sources is that one of the proximate mechanisms at least they drove the riots was the feeling they could get away with it, that nothing would happen to them, and this was exacerbated by the aforementioned police response. Essentially with the threat removed there is no need to cooperate. This brings me to the issue of the harsher sentences being handed down, although my current understanding is they are not so much harsh, as the maximum the sentence allows under judicial guidelines.

Fine is a price

This concept is very simple, if the fine (i.e. the punishment) is seen as too appropriate for the action then any response is seen as a price worth paying (see the opening to Porridge) and given the impassioned and erudite interviews given by some of those involved in the riots, they perceived the fine to be nothing, a price certainly worth paying for a nice shiny new television or pair of trainers. Directly, they didn’t fear being caught and therefore didn’t need to behave. By the way, for balance, one of the main factors behind the banking crash was the lack of punishment for losses which simply encouraged ever more risky and insane speculation. The more you know eh?

More indirectly is the other side of the fine, general life effects. I’ll tread delicately here as the issue the socio-economic status of the looters, as it leads to, shall we say ‘heated’ discussion (although something tells me that maybe, just maaaaybe there’ll be a correlation), the reason the majority of us don’t commit crime isn’t so much because we have a fine moral compass, but because beyond the fear of being caught itself (see above) the consequences are far reaching. What would happen, for instance, if you were arrested and jailed; job loss, not being able to pay rent, maybe unable to enter your ideal career? But when you take those fears away (both, on the Right, because “they just get benefits” and on the Left “they’ve lost all hope of attainment in our society”), you take away many of the consequences of anti-social behaviour, especially when it’s coupled with a subculture who’s response to anti-social behaviour is not the same as the majority of the population. With the threat of destitution (in principle anyway) removed, as well as the socially disapproval penalty, the only cost left is imprisonment or other punishment by the state.

Is it wrong to expect parents to ask "Where did you get this" and "why is it full of broken glass"

God damnit Son, stealing trainers, are you an idiot? I said get a Xbox, XBOX

Reviving The Lethiathan

On a conceptual level it was terrifying to see the people I cross the road avoid take over the streets, a veritable dawn of the NEDs, leading after a few days to a rise in calls for general vigilantism as citizens lost faith in the police to do their duty, which causally led to the deaths of three men guarding a local business, and another who sadly joined  the long list of citizens beaten to death for confronting gangs of kids attacking his property.

Let’s be clear on something for a moment, we in the UK don’t live in a military dictatorship, a religious autocracy or are ruled by a man in a shiny/spiky hat claiming a divine right to rule. We live in a democracy, and as such the laws of the state are our laws, there is ‘the state’ and it’s us. As I mentioned above, it’s this almost metaphysical notion of the lethiathan that allows us to go about our business, knowing that there is a legitimate authority more powerful than anything else that could do us harm.

"That's nothing compared to the monster of inequality" *snap*

Well maybe not "anything"

Now, trying to be seen to be ‘tough on crime’ has quite frightening pitfalls, but in this specific case I feel it is indeed important for justice to be seen to be done, if only because without it, the outrage felt by many as their city centres burned may be releases in some other worse guise; who’s to say, should things every “kick off” again, we won’t see the streets filled with more citizens protecting their property themselves, who are unlikely to be as constrained as the police have to be. Equally, if the community as a whole doesn’t see those involved punished directly, they’re more likely to support punitive and self-defeating notions like stopping benefit for households where any one person was involved. Sometimes it is legitimately more important that justice seems to be done.

Jailing people helps communities

Now, back in my home town (I won’t say where, but in the top 20 “worst places to live” 2009) I found out along the grape vine that when one person is put is prison, the burglary rate in the area drops by half, to the point where the source joked (I think) the police plan budgets around his release dates. Indeed, over the pond in the US, one of the main reasons for the reduction in crime may be longer-sentances. This is might not just because these people are not committing crime, but it’s also removing their influence from others. The majority of us are socialised by our environment, but there are always a few can never be socialised (the true psychopaths) and these people affect those around who are  influenced by their developmental environment, they act as the kernel of dirt around which forms a snowflake of anti-social behaviour.

They stole the Ice Giants other testicle yesterday

See, crime is... SNOWBALLING XD

Thus, by jailing the individuals who are caught, especially the ones who seemed to be at the centre of it all, you’re not only removing them from society directly, but also the deleterious effects they would have on individuals who haven’t yet internalised their aberrant social values. This is where the issue of poverty comes in, as while I would hazard to say the majority of the rioters were of low socio-economic status, this of course does not mean most people at that status are not law abiding and just want to get on with their lives.

Unfortunately, it’s those communities that are more likely to be blighted by the anti-social minority (because you move if you can afford it). It’s a situation seen from areas of urban decay to the hinterland of Afganistan to Germany circa 1938; do you side with the local power for protection (even if you must act against your wishes) or risk persecution. Thus by quickly removing trouble makers from communities and keeping them away, you remove their poisonous influence from areas that already have to contend with the genuine social grievances such as lack of opportunity, employment and local government resources. As an aside this is partly why the literati defense of the rioters irked me so, they may well be forgotten peoples to you and politicians, but not to those who live next door who have to endure the chronic aggressive and threatening behaviour on a daily basis.

Those poor misunderstood victims of society

So there we go, my brief take on the criminal justice response to the recent unpleasantness. Now don’t mistake this for anyone wishing some sort of police state, but I think I’ve demonstrated that the enforcement of the law in cases of pure criminality (I don’t think any culture since the dawn of man has considered “taking something someone else has by force” as good thing) doesn’t do anyone any harm. Punishment may not necessarily be in the form of jailing (there has been great success with community-based restorative justice) but should be a direct punishment.

While we should always be wearing of “tough on crime” band standing, it is also important for a society to maintain that credible threat of punishment, not to produce a society that is fearful of the state, but one where do not have to fear one another.