From the late 1950s Britain’s official attitude towards crime began to change. Instead of being viewed as bad behaviour that needed to be punished and controlled, it was increasingly judged to be a symptom of a social or psychological malaise. The offender was seen as being forced into crime by poverty, inequality or other forces beyond his control which society could, and should, alleviate. Greed, laziness and the wish to dominate others were no longer recognised as the motives for violent crime. Persistent violent and dangerous criminals, who spurned hard work and thrift as the route to a comfortable standard of living, were rewarded with state protection from prosecution whenever possible, and the guarantee of their human rights, even in the face of their violence and law breaking. What was required, our ruling elites argued, was the application, wherever possible, of non-custodial sentences (even for violent offenders), such as the supervision of offenders in the community, to identify and alleviate the ‘underlying causes of crime’.
This has never worked, either to reform offenders or to protect the public. The re-offending rates of supervised criminals have steadily worsened. Forty years ago they were 41 per cent measured over two years. They are now at least 56 per cent measured over one year. This equates to millions of offences committed against the public every year by offenders trusted with their freedom. Further, between 1998 and 2014 there were at least 6,300 of the most serious violent and sex crimes, such as murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, committed by criminals on the probation service’s books.
Eighteen-year-old Opemipo Jaji, a violent sex offender, was convicted of making an indecent image of a child as well as robbing and sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. Despite his obvious dangerousness, he was given 18 months probation supervision in the community. A few months later, Jaji, having made a routine visit to his supervisor, left the probation office at about 4 pm.
After about five minutes, he fell in behind an 11-year-old girl walking home from school. He followed her, chose his moment and dragged her into a park and subjected her to a violent three-hour assault. While this attack was taking place, his supervising officer would have been putting the finishing touches to his record entry covering the interview. Probably, at the very moment that he closed the file and sat contemplating how well Jaji was doing and the wisdom the courts had shown in not sending him to prison, Jaji was repeatedly raping the terrified child.
During the 1990s the probation service embraced the idea that ‘thinking skills’ programmes, designed by psychologists, could identify faults in the way offenders made decisions and so help them avoid crime. They were hopeful that years of failure could at last be reversed. But four years later the published results showed that not only had they had failed to reform the offenders on these programmes, but that in many cases their offending had increased.
What probation and other officials will not admit is that crimes are not committed because of faulty thinking skills, nor because of some pressing social or psychological need, nor because of problems associated with poverty and inequality, but because the offender chooses to commit them.
Although it is true that many criminals emerge from the poorer or less well-off sections of the community, it is wrong to interpret these conditions as factors which ‘cause’ crime. (An analysis carried out in 2011 found, contrary to what many believed, that countries with greater degrees of inequality and poverty had less crime than those which were wealthier and with more equality). Most people who choose to be violent and commit crime tend also to make life choices that generally keep them in the lower classes of our society. For example they refuse to work at school, are violent, ill-disciplined, demand instant gratification, and fail to plan for the future. This is not to say that they do not have access to money – crime and violence brings many of them a good income and their social station in life can be seen as an indicator of how they choose to live and spend their ill-gotten gains. The fact that the majority of children from poorer home backgrounds go on to live decent law-abiding lives bears out this truth. In 1926, when millions of working-class Britons lived in dire poverty, our violent offender rate was 4.4 per 100,000 of the population. It is now over 1,400.
Swathes of legislation have allowed courts to avoid using imprisonment for increasing numbers of convicted criminals. Yet we are told ‘we send too many offenders to jail’, and many now believe this is a truth written in stone. But it is a trick created by measuring the numbers in prison against our general population. When computed this way, it suggests that our imprisonment rate, per 100,000 of the population, has been rising.
But a moment’s reflection tells us that most of us do not commit crime and are not in that group of persons liable to be sent to jail. Therefore, this calculation tells us nothing about how lenient or severe we are in our use of prison for criminals. A more accurate imprisonment rate can be obtained by expressing the prison population against the number of crimes committed. The following graph shows that our imprisonment rate, when calculated in this way, has, since the 1950s, fallen not risen, and that we are not the ‘prison-obsessed nation’ that the anti-prison lobby would have us believe.
The opposite is the case. Only 28 per cent of offenders convicted of a serious crime are given a term of imprisonment. The public are left to rub shoulders with the remaining 72 per cent, except, of course, the justice elite, whose gated communities in cities and country retreats provide them with a level of security not available to the majority. Generally, they are not affected by crimes committed by those they campaign to keep out of jail. Many who are sentenced to imprisonment do not stay in long. The average sentence length for ‘violence against the person’ crimes is just 23 months, which in practice means 11 months, because almost all sentences are subject to 50 per cent remission.
We do not need psychologists to tell us that if you reward bad behaviour you will get more of it. We should not be surprised that violent crime is escalating. The offenders have taken their cue from us.