Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Crime, Punishment and Austerity

During a debate on the article “Series of knifepoint robberies in Chafford Hundred” on Your Thurrock, some extremely dubious comments were made about the need for harsher sentences to deter criminals.  However, it has been proven in studies that the only real deterrence is the threat of being caught by the police.

Before I continue, I would like to present the debate cut-and-pasted from the comments section on the article’s page to give the proper context.  Please note: all quotes are reproduced exactly as they appear on the original page.

thurrocksgonedownhill – “We are all paying the price for weak namby pamby policies that don’t work. Lets bring back harsh penalties for these scum bags.”

littlebopeep – “Absolutely terrible. Discipline should start in the home. Sadly many children have none and are allowed to develope into hooligans.”

Valen (Myles) Cook – “Some people believe that harsh punishments deter criminals. There is plenty of evidence that they don’t. The only true deterrent is the threat of capture by the police which can’t happen under the Tories as they have cut police numbers leading to a criminal’s paradise. Of course, some people will ignore the evidence that is plentifully available if they can be bothered to look for it but there can’t be any people that stupid or lazy out there, can there?”

littlebopeep – “So what should the penalty be. A tap on the hand and don’t do it again? Sorry, cannot agree. Many of these children who have knives are well under age. Where are their families?”

thurrocksgonedownhill – “It would seem some on here would give them a new phone and trainers and tell them to play nicely… I guess that’s parasitic Labour voters for you.”

Valen (Myles) Cook – “littlebopeep – Well that’s a very stupid thing to say and not what I said. I didn’t say let violent criminals off. I merely stated that harsher punishments don’t deter criminals and there is evidence to that effect. What does deter criminals is the risk of capture so more police are necessary. The current sentences are sufficient if we had the police officers is sufficient number to increase the risk of capture. And I don’t know why you included stuff about children with knives in response to me when I didn’t include any reference to them in my comment. Perhaps you should try reading people’s comments properly before you reply.”

littlebopeep – “I suppose everyone is entitled to there opinion, but do feel that the threat of hanging might help.”

Valen (Myles) Cook – “littlebopeep – I’m sorry but I was not offering my opinion. I was presenting the result of many studies on the role of punishment on criminals. The result was that only the fear of getting caught provides sufficient deterrence because many criminals believe that they won’t get caught so won’t suffer any punishment. Get more police on the streets and you’ll see a reduction in crime. If a criminal doesn’t get caught having a sentence of hanging or whatever has absolutely no effect at all. Not only is what I said a fact, it’s a bleeding obvious fact.”

thurrocksgonedownhill – “Getting caught is really a deterrent…not. Going to prison is a badge of honour and all these studies are do gooder rubbish.
Here’s a fact- TBC & The Police spend tax payers money banning this so called E 17 gang from Grays, well that really scared them big time. Members of the gang were then seen in the town and even seen making video’s a week or so later and continue to be seen in the town.

“Maybe we should have another expensive study into the study that clearly didn’t tell them to play nicely.

“Blinkered Labour voters for you I guess.”

littlebopeep – “Sadly, common sense falls on deaf ears.”

thurrocksgonedownhill – “Littlebopeep your absolutely right, Sadly we live in a namby pamby society that rewards failure.

“People (in fact animals) who carry knifes and use them are taking another’s life and wrecking the lifes’ of the people left behind. Yet reading some of the comments on here from so called intelligent (sic) people you would be forgiven to believe that is ok.

“Hard line sentences is the only thing these feral no goods will understand.We don’t need parasitic imbeciles telling us all is fine…it’s Tory cuts to blame.”

As you can see, a point I made was that harsh sentences aren’t a deterrent if the chances of being caught and punished are low.  At the current time, with the massive cuts to the policing budget which has seen a reduction of over 20,000 police officers on the streets of the UK and an increase of 14% in overall crime in just the last 12 months (gun crime up 20%, knife crime up 21%, robbery up 29%, vehicle theft up 18%, domestic burglary up 32%, and stalking crimes up 36%), the chances of being caught are low and getting lower all the time, especially as the number of police officers is at the lowest level since 1985.

So, is my point mere opinion on my part or does it have any intellectual weight behind it?  Well, as I have already stated, there are studies that have proven that, although harsh sentences have some deterrent effect, that effect is minimal compared to the chances of capture.  I wouldn’t ask you to take me purely at my word, that would not be right and proper, so I am going to back up my argument for more police on our streets being the only real effective deterrent by quoting some verifiable facts and expert opinion.

In Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century (2013), author Daniel S Nagin states that the main conclusions of his study are “First, there is little evidence that increases in the length of already long prison sentences yield general deterrent effects that are sufficiently large to justify their social and economic costs…Second, on the basis of the earlier noted Crime and justice review (Nagin, Cullen, and Jonson 2009), I have concluded that there is little evidence of a specific deterrent effect arising from the experience of imprisonment compared with the experience of noncustodial sanctions such as probation.  Instead, the evidence suggests that that reoffending is either unaffected or increased…Third, there is substantial evidence that increasing the visibility of the police by hiring more officers and allocating existing officers in ways that materially heighten the perceived risk of apprehension can deter crimes.  This evidence is consistent with the perceptual deterrence literature that surveys individuals on sanction risk perceptions and relates these perceptions to their actual or intended offending behaviour.  This literature finds that perceived certainty of punishment is associated with reduced self-reported or intended offending…Thus, I conclude, as have many prior reviews of deterrence research, that evidence in support of the deterrent effect of various measures of the certainty of punishment is far more convincing and consistent than for the severity of punishment.” [Crime and Justice Vol. 42, No. 1, Crime and Justice in America 1975–2025 (August 2013), pp. 199-263]

The National Institute of Justice website uses Mr Nagin’s work as the basis of its page called Five Things About Deterrence in which they translate some of the language into a more user-friendly type and boil down the entire article into five basic points.  The five points are: 1) “The certainty of being caught is a vastly more powerful deterrent than the punishment.  Research shows clearly that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment”, 2) “Sending an individual convicted of a crime to prison isn’t a very effective way to deter crime”, 3) “Police deter crime by increasing the perception that criminals will be caught and punished”, 4) “Increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime”, and 5) “There is no proof that the death penalty deters criminals”.  [https://nij.gov/five-things/pages/deterrence.aspx (Accessed 12 March 2019)]  The last point is rather moot as the UK doesn’t have a death penalty but does add something to our current discussion.

On the BBC Future website, the article The myth behind long prison sentences by Bryan Lufkin (posted 15 May 2018) states that: “Criminals seem to value the future less than non criminals, one study found, meaning that long sentences can seem “arbitrary”, and only work to deter up to a point. Education played a role too, with lesser educated criminals seemingly less put off by a harsher sentence.” [http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180514-do-long-prison-sentences-deter-crime (Accessed 12 March 2019)]

In their article Sentence Severity and Crime: Accepting the Null Hypothesis, authors Anthony N Doob and Cheryl Marie Webster stated that “The literature on the effects of sentence severity on crime levels has been reviewed numerous times in the past twenty-five years.  Most reviews conclude that there is little or no consistent evidence that harsher sanctions reduce crime rates in Western populations.” [Crime and Justice Vol. 30 (2003), pp. 143-195]

A report from the National Research Council, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (2014), notes that “Evidence is limited on the crime prevention effects of most of the policies that contributed to the post-1973 increase in incarceration rates.  Nevertheless, the evidence base demonstrates that lengthy prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure. Specifically, the incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best.” [The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (2014), pp. 155]  Please note:  You can pick up a free PDF copy of this report at https://www.nap.edu/catalog/18613/the-growth-of-incarceration-in-the-united-states-exploring-causes

So, given all the evidence to the contrary, what are we to do to reduce crime on our streets if harsher sentences aren’t going to do the job?

Well surely it’s obvious to even the most ignorant reader – we need to have a greater police presence to increase the chances of catching the criminals and punishing them.  However, how can we possibly increase police numbers without increasing the police budget?  We can’t.  The only way to increase police numbers and reduce crime is to stop cutting the police budget as the Tories have been doing for the best part of a decade and start to pump more money into the service.

Of course, this only addresses actually catching criminals and we are still left with the societal causes of crime beyond the basic greed inherent in human nature.  The same reasons that brought about the vote for Brexit are responsible for the increase in crime that a lack of police officers has caused – stagnant wages, lowering living standards, increasing poverty, a lack of funding for public services that has resulted in the shutting down of youth services which in turn has increased knife crime and gang culture.

The current age of austerity has exacerbated the already volatile tensions inherent in society at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder and the longer austerity goes on the more volatile things will become.  Austerity was always an ideological project by the Tories who were able to use the deficit and the global financial crash that started in the US to push through their ideological plans to strip the UK of its welfare system and National Health Service and reduce the State’s obligations to its citizens.  With orgasmic fervour the Tories have reduced spending in every department and created the powder keg that has seen such a large rise in the levels of crime across the board.  All of this they have done in the name of “reducing the deficit” (which was supposed to take five years and may now not be achieved in twenty) and paying off the UK debt, which is ironic as, despite austerity and the deaths and poverty it has caused, the debt has now risen to £2.1 trillion where it once sat at £979.8 billion as of May 2010.

The question to be asked is – if crime levels are increased by austerity (in the form of lower police numbers and volatile social conditions brought on by cuts to public services) and the national debt is actually rising, where has all that money that has been added to the national debt gone to?  Surely there’s enough money to increase police funding and funding to all the services that could alleviate the tensions in society and reduce crime?

It is generally accepted that you can’t cut a nation’s way out of a deficit/debt problem.  Austerity doesn’t work.  It is generally accepted that the only way out of a financial problem at the State level is to invest in infrastructure, in businesses, in education.  Anything else is folly, yet there seems to be no investment being made by the current government and yet they borrow more and more, cut more and more and the UK drowns under a tsunami of austerity-induced crime and national debt.  Who exactly is benefitting from austerity?  One thing’s for sure, it certainly isn’t the average person in the street and things will only get worse as the worst in human nature is revealed by the desperation felt outside the hallowed halls of Parliament.

Austerity is a political choice.  It will take an act of political will to reverse it.

We have a decision to make as a country – do we want to sink into a quagmire of crime and hatred fuelled by austerity or do we want to do better and become the better versions of ourselves that we could become if only we had the will to do so?

Update: since I wrote the above article the following statement was made by Institute for Fiscal Studies director Paul Johnson: “If the chancellor uses his headroom to find an extra £15bn for public services, he could say with more conviction that austerity is coming to an end.”

That one statement provides enough evidence that austerity could be ended.  The fact that it is not ending can therefore only be a political choice made by the Tories.

Mr Johnson also indicated that Brexit will negatively impact the economy meaning that the current volatile social situation exacerbated by austerity probably won’t get any better any time soon.  Mr Johnson stated: “There is a consensus that the economy would have been about 2 per cent bigger had the Brexit vote not occurred.”

He continued: “In those circumstances the deficit would have been smaller still and the fiscal room for manoeuvre greater. The end of austerity could already have been rather more decisively with us.”  [https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/austerity-end-government-philip-hammond-ifs-report-a8822411.html (Accessed 14 March 2019)]

This provides more evidence placing the blame for the current economic situation solely in the hands of the Tories because it was the Tories, in trying to keep their own party from splitting along Euro-sceptic/pro-European lines, who brought about the EU Referendum that has split the UK along the only faultline that hadn’t already been cynically exploited to divide society.

Austerity and the damage it has caused was and always will be an act of political will by the Tories.  A choice that they could roll back on now they apparently have £15 billion extra to pump into public services but that they choose not to for their own ideological reasons.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

The importance of discussing taboo subjects

I submitted the following article to the Your Thurrock website a couple of times in recent weeks but it hasn’t been posted so I thought I’d post it here.

When I was interviewed for the Grays Lives Project I was taken aback when Mr Casey said that he’d had complaints about my article on the euthanasia and assisted suicide debate.  It was the first I’d heard about any complaints despite the fact that it was posted on June 27, 2011.  Questions jumped into my head like ‘did the people who complained about the article actually read it’ and ‘don’t they think that important issues like that should be discussed’.

I came to the only conclusion that a sensible person could come to – the people who complained about the article really should get over themselves and stop being such snowflakes.

You probably think that I’m being unnecessarily harsh but the truth is that, despite the uncomfortable nature of euthanasia and assisted suicide, it is merely one of many subjects that are considered taboo and we shouldn’t as a responsible society ignore such subjects.

In relation to euthanasia, we already accept it happening in hospitals when people who would not have a good quality of life but would otherwise stay alive have their nutrients taken away by medical staff so that they may die.  The patients in such situations are usually not in a position to give their consent so are actually victims of involuntary euthanasia.  Another example of involuntary euthanasia are the elderly patients who are put on the Liverpool Care Pathway (LCP) by doctors without their knowledge or consent.  The LCP is meant to be for terminally ill patients but one elderly gentleman was put on the LCP by a doctor after being admitted to hospital with a chest infection.  After it had been discovered, another doctor actually treated the patient and he went home all cured.  He would have been dead had the first doctor been left to consign the gentleman to the LCP and it would have been a case of involuntary euthanasia.

I won’t dwell on euthanasia but I feel that it’s important for the current discussion a brief recap of what society accepts without question and, more importantly, without discussion.

If we don’t discuss taboo subjects in a constructive way then truly terrible things can happen and society is complicit in every act, in every persecution, in every case of wilful ignorance.

Let us not forget that the #MeToo revolution that is taking place came after discussion was finally started over the sexual misconduct towards women in the film industry which was considered a taboo subject.  It then blossomed into a larger discussion about how women are treated in the workplace and elsewhere.  Where would the #MeToo revolution be if the topic had remained in the realm of the taboo?

If it wasn’t for the veil of secrecy in the corridors of the BBC and the consigning to the realm of taboo the subject of the actions of Jimmy Saville and others, it would be quite possibly still be happening now.  We need to discuss subjects like paedophilia so that we can come up with a proper response in prevention, treatment and punishment but that won’t happen if people take offense at the mere mention of the subject.

There are also the subjects like mental health and addiction that need to be openly and honestly discussed because of the amount of misinformation and ignorance about the subject.  Mental health is being discussed but the discussion is mostly led by celebrities who have access to better resources and treatments which gives the general public a very skewed picture of mental illness, leading to some very nasty comments about more disabled sufferers by ill-informed people.

Addiction is also seen in a rather one-sided way in the general population.  It is seen as a weakness, a physical dependence on whatever substance or activity triggers a particular individual but it also has a psychological aspect that many overlook.  Some people believe that, for instance, drug use and addiction causes mental health issues and that is true in some cases but people who take drugs or alcohol can actually be suffering from undiagnosed mental ill-health and are using such substances to self-medicate.

The areas of addiction and mental health intermingle but it’s not always easy to say which one came first.  Either one can be the cause or the effect and, until we have a full and frank discussion of these taboo subjects, mistakes will be made and the crime that can sometimes accompany addiction issues will continue to rise and the correct treatment will remain out of reach for those who need it.

There are many other subjects that are vaguely taboo but I will keep to a single subject that has been in the news lately – religion.  Some parents have apparently taken their children out of lessons involving the subject of Islam which shows a small-mindedness that stifles debate and merely stokes distrust and hatred between Christians and Muslims.  We really need to open up discussion of all the world’s religions so that everyone has a basic understanding of other religious belief systems which could lessen tensions between competing religions.  No one would be forced to read the complete holy books or teachings of the religions they don’t follow but learning the similarities between the different belief systems might be a good step towards acceptance.  Finding common ground might go some way to bringing peace in religious conflicts and, if people have a reasonable knowledge of the different religious beliefs, it might stop extremists from using perverted versions of religions to justify violence because potential followers will know the truth.

As a society we need to break down the taboos that stop us discussing important issues and getting real information and real options on those subjects we currently keep hidden.  We owe it to ourselves and future generations.

You can view the Grays Lives Project interview referred to in the article at http://www.yourthurrock.com/2018/12/23/grays-lives-project-myles-cook-depression-im-one-lucky-ones/