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Pat Stack

Crime: behind closed doors

(November 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Is crime rising, and is stiffer punishment the answer? Pat Stack puts forward the socialist answer to crime

‘Since 1985 the number of 10 to 13 year old offenders has fallen by 45 percent’

The crime that government and press condemn is itself a product of the very society that the Tories and their like proudly uphold.

Their society is based on a system which creates a wealthy few above the masses of poor and develops a huge contrast between wealth and poverty. Capitalism spreads the false illusion that we can all have a share of that wealth.

The great myth of capitalism is that if we work hard enough, are ingenious or ruthless enough we can all get our piece of the action. At no time has this myth been more widely spread than in the Thatcher/Major years. A blatant ideology of greed backed by a ruthless disregard for the have nots and a constant fanfare of propaganda against solidarity and caring has marked these years.

In such circumstances it is little wonder that a minority of those with nothing and with little hope of getting anything should look to helping themselves in the only way that seems available.

Given the society we live in the question should not really be why do some people turn to crime, rather it should be how come more don’t? Nor should we be at all surprised that a brutal and brutish society brutalises some of its victims to such an extent that they themselves become violent, frequently towards those in their immediate vicinity.

Despite this, it should be remembered that some of the biggest crimes are committed not by the victims of society, but by the beneficiaries. Far greater sums are stolen in fraud and tax evasion than will ever be got by the average bank robber let alone the legendary mugger. Far more people’s lives are wrecked by the legal crimes of capitalism: unemployment, homelessness, withdrawal of benefits, poverty, than by any handbag snatcher.

Yet when members of the privileged class are caught out they are treated in a much different way to those of our class. The Guinness fraud for instance saw one man (Ernest Saunders) serve hardly any of his sentence, spend the time he did serve in open prison, before being released because he suffered from Altzheimers Disease. Strangely enough shortly after his release he was doing a lecture tour on some aspect of how to run a business. He was presumably the only man in history ever to have recovered from the disease.

No working class person would have received the same treatment. When the Tories speak of crime it is of our class and our crimes they are speaking, not of their own.

Crime has risen. The direct correlation between the impact of recession and the growth of crime is there for all to see. Even former chief of the Metropolitan Police, Peter Imbert, was forced to admit:

‘The notion that there is a link between crime and social deprivation is compelling. There is a need to offer hope to those most disadvantaged if we are to see any reduction in crime.’

According to the police between 1991 and 1992 crime has risen by 11 percent. They claim it rose by 50 percent since 1989, and doubled since the Tories came to office. Yet police figures are, like policemen themselves, notoriously unreliable.

Probably a more accurate set of figures are those produced by the Home Office, who reckon that real crime figures are probably running about four times higher than those of the police, but that the increase is probably only one seventh of what the police are suggesting.

Even then the vast majority of crimes are committed against property (96 percent) rather than people. Each year there are fewer murders and manslaughters in England and Wales alone than there are people killed at work (620 was the last estimate of annual workplace fatalities).

Nor are we becoming a gun ridden society of drug gang murders as some would have us believe. For instance of 147 murders in London in 1991, only 10 involved firearms. Half of all British murders involve a knife, many of them in the home by a person known by the victim. Britain still has one of the lowest murder rates of the developed world.

There has actually been a fall over the past few years in one set of offenders, although you would believe exactly the opposite if you’ve read the press or listened to Tory ministers. Since 1985 the number of 10- to 13-year-old offenders has actually fallen by 45 percent, and that of 10- to 17-year-olds by 31 percent.

At last year’s Tory conference Kenneth Clarke spoke of ‘persistent nasty little juveniles’, yet when the Home Office was asked to provide figures it could come up with only 106 names in the whole country who had committed 10 or more offences!

There is a wider story behind this fall. Since 1985 many young offender institutions were closed or abandoned. They had been a dismal failure, and even the government recognised this fact. An estimated 80 percent of those who served time in them re-offended within two years. Their closure saw the fall in juvenile crime figures. Yet now the Tories want to reopen them, build more prisons, lock more people up in the further and higher sectors of criminal education.

Howard said that he would judge the success rate of his ‘fight against crime’ by the number of people locked up.

This appalling, absurd notion has nothing to do with reducing crime, and everything to do with playing on the worst prejudices of people. Prison doesn’t work. It is known not to work. Britain jails more people than any other EC country yet still has one of the highest crime rates.

Following Howard’s conference speech a whole number of judges have publicly condemned him and his hairbrained reactionary rantings. Lord Woolf attacked him and then another seven judges quickly followed suit in the Observer. Law Lord, Lord Ackner argued:

‘Prison doesn’t do anything to make a person a better citizen than when he went in. He’s less likely to get a job or be able to lead a decent life ... Prison has no rehabilitative qualities because the resources to make it so are not provided.’ Another judge, Mr Justice Potter said: ‘No one who has visited a prison with a degree of perception can fail to be moved by the fact that they are places of squalor and degradation.’

We should have no doubt who fills those ‘places of degradation’. The last survey of the prison population showed that one in four were under 21, three quarters were manual workers, one third homeless, 15 percent illiterate, with the black percentage of the prison population two to three times higher than the percentage of blacks in society as a whole. Over a fifth were either mentally ill or verging on mental abnormality. In other words these useless and vicious institutions are packed with the exploited and oppressed, and Howard wants to build six more!

Any government that can end up making British high court judges sound liberal must be a very nasty one indeed. There is no doubting the nastiness of this one with its criminal proposals to combat crime, which have nothing to do with fighting crime and everything to do with revenge, punishment, and playing on the fears and worst prejudices of sections of the population.

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