It's the morality, stupid!

Why do Britons want more policing, prisons and punishment? The political left need to incorporate morality into analysis and debate around crime.

Luke Grey
22 July 2014

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then the biggest scoundrel is the British press. Sometimes, though, they like to do down their own country’s public, and that’s especially the case when “public” translates as “working class”. Last year, Ipsos MORI reported that 58% of people in the UK do not believe crime is falling, even though incidents of crime more than halved between 1995 and 2012. The pollsters also announced that less educated Britons were generally worse at guessing such figures, and commentators from across the mainstream political spectrum leapt at the opportunity to demonstrate their distinct brands of snobbery. The cultivated left-liberals of the Independent crowed ‘British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows’. The fatalistic hipsters at Vice thoughtfully suggested ‘The truth won’t save Britain’s dumb public’. And the Spectator used the research to insist that Brits are “decent” (i.e. conservative but not fascist) precisely because they are unsophisticated.

Perhaps we don’t believe crime is falling because we’re just not used to hearing good news. Aisha, who lives with her daughter in a deprived part of a large Midlands city and works as a clinical technician for the NHS, told me: “I don’t have no trust in the police. That’s why people do take matters in their own hands ... so crime’s definitely going up.”

The fear that crime’s rising doesn’t weaken the moral right to break some laws. “Crime’s going up because people can’t afford stuff,” says Karen, also a single Mum, and working part-time in a supermarket in the north east of England. “The number of times you get offered knock-off stuff. People growing drugs in their extra bedroom because of the bedroom tax. People are turning to crime just to help themselves get by.” However, most people will be happy if there are fewer burglaries, assaults and rapes. And, indeed, that’s what’s happening. Some time in the eighties or nineties, crime began to disappear from Britain. In 2013, fewer people told the government’s researchers that they’d been the victim of a crime than at any other point in the 33 years since the Home Office began the survey. The number of reports to the police has also been falling, with a 38% reduction since at least 2002/03, when the current measuring standards were introduced. And an academic analysis that began in 2001 showed that since then, the number of individuals admitted to A&E who were injured illegally (rather than in a DIY accident, say, or by a police officer) has fallen every year except for one. Any of these sources could be questioned, especially the police data (even the UK government’s Statistics Authority doesn’t trust the numbers collected by English and Welsh police forces). But together, they’re plausible, and when compared with similar figures from other rich and industrially developed countries over the same period, they’re very convincing indeed.

It really matters why many people believe that crime is rising. Jinesh, in his late teens and living in a small Midlands city, described how “The police came to my door and said: ‘Just so you know, the girls next door have been burgled.’ “ That single, but very close threat transformed how he felt in a place where he’s never had any problems. “I used to feel completely safe walking home, but now it’s an area that’s scary to me. The police going door to door, they think they’re helping. But I’m 19 and I’m living with two sisters. If it’s making me feel that way, what about others? The crime doesn’t even have to be done to us.”

Direct and mass-mediated knowledge

Despite overwhelming evidence suggesting that crime is falling, there’s nothing irrational about our exaggerated perception of its levels. We’re very good at forming opinions that accurately reflect our experiences. It’s just that sometimes those experiences aren’t face-to-face. Instead, they’re mass-mediated. 

Research by the Home Office shows word of mouth communication and personal experience are only just beaten by local newspapers as the most popular sources of information to ascertain local crime levels. These relatively direct sources provide people with a remarkably accurate idea of how crime in their area compares with the rest of the country. But, as Ipsos MORI and all those commentators noted, when it comes to national crime levels, we’re way off the mark. This should come as no surprise. Mass media is, naturally, our primary source of information about crime outside of our local area, and both TV news and the press are obsessed with crime reporting. We’re very good at converting our mass-mediated experience of broken Britain into the “knowledge” that there’s a lot of crime happening elsewhere in the country.

And in some areas crime is actually rising. If you live in Cumbria, where figures from the ONS show crime has gone up in the last year, government statistics insisting that you’ve never had it so good are pretty meaningless. The north west of England has emerged from recession slowly, having seen employment slump much faster, and for longer, than other parts of the UK.

There are other parts of the population for whom “falling crime” rightly seems like a myth, but whose experiences are consistently ignored. Until last year, Lauren lived on a council estate which she described as being “notorious for being ‘the crime neighbourhood’ “ of the area. Lauren’s parents were working class and she now works as a sociologist. However, the tables were turned when the Home Office rang up to research her own family.

“My son was called and it was the British Crime Survey. And they must have asked him ‘Do you ever see any crime in your neighbourhood?’ And he was like ‘No, no, I don’t see any. Nothing happens round here.’ When he put the phone down I asked him ‘Why did you tell them you don’t see any crime?,’ and he said ‘Well I don’t. I’ve never seen anything round here.’ And I was like ‘Really? Yesterday you was walking down the back of the house and the first thing you said to me when you came in was “They’re smoking crack again at the back of the house’”.’ And he was like ‘Yeah, yeah, but I don’t think they meant that sort of crime. That’s not a crime, is it?’ Some things happen so regularly that you don’t see it, or you don’t see it as a problem. People aren’t reporting things that they don’t see as important to them.”

Even if crime is disappearing from official statistics as a result of becoming normalised, it’s still significant that average crime levels appear to have fallen, and that this remains largely unknown. Regardless of their intention, journalists curate our media experience so that we think crime is more pervasive than it is, and that policy on law and order must therefore be too soft, when we might otherwise think that the threat of crime is falling for some people but not for others, which would indicate the need to redistribute resources. Our concerns about crime reflect and reinforce a media landscape filled with cruelty and danger, and it’s those concerns that drive and are driven by a repressive penal policy. 

Prison is popular

Just as many Britons are certain that crime is rising, most remain certain about the value, if not the utility, of prison, and they think it should be tougher. To some extent that’s because life on the inside is perceived as easy. Karen described how an acquaintance, a former inmate, had told her he’d completed Grand Theft Auto while he was inside. “Surely you shouldn’t be able to do that? They get all this help and a roof over their head and meal everyday. They don’t have to work. People come out saying it’s like a holiday when they’re in there. It’s not really a punishment, and I think a year should mean a year.”

The idea that jail isn’t tough enough is directly linked to how difficult life is on the outside. Karen half-joked: “I know some pretty dodgy people, and they all say ‘I might as well go inside, then I don’t have to pay bills and I get away from the Mrs.’ “

As welfare and public services are cut, the financial and moral responsibility for workers to be attractive to employers shifts even further from the state to those individual workers themselves. As a result, the economic and physical vulnerability of people on the outside contrasts strongly with the perceived security and comfort of prison. Karen’s attempts to train in beauty therapy have been thwarted repeatedly. “They get privileges in there and can learn these new skills, when I get my benefits taken away if I go back to college. Some of them, you’ve not seen them for six months and [when they come out of prison] they’re all worked out. Some of us can’t afford to go to the gym. Having three healthy meals, an education. Those are luxuries now.”

Most of the people I spoke to for this article didn’t mention the possibility that life could be better on the outside, so that going to prison wouldn’t have to get worse in order to constitute a punishment. But when prompted, many dismissed that as being as hopeless as it was obvious.

Repression generates repression

In 1997, some believed that New Labour, with their loud commitment to “evidence-based policy”, would transform the state’s entire economic policy to reflect the overwhelming evidence that the incidence of many crimes is strongly related to high levels of inequality. Others hoped that penal policy would reflect the avalanche of research showing that prison is a very expensive, short term and violent way to reduce crime. Instead, they argued, support should be given to criminals to develop social bonds, feel confident and address their own “crimogenic needs”, such as poor employment opportunities.

But although Tony Blair came good on his promise to be tough on crime, he and his ministers were rarely so tough on its causes. Under Labour, minimum sentences were introduced for all crimes, the maximum sentence possible for many crimes was increased, and the possibility of indeterminate sentences was introduced if the public was felt to be at risk. Successive Home Secretaries told the judiciary to jail more people who breached non-custodial sentences. Jack Straw even chose to maintain the disastrous policy of his Conservative predecessor Michael Howard, jailing a growing number of drug users, despite clear evidence that prison is a great place to get addicted, and a bad one to go sober

The result was a catastrophe. Between 1993 and 2012 the number of people locked up in the UK doubled to more than 86,000, with most of that increase taking place under Labour. That meant an extra 41,800 individuals locked up in jails where the government’s chief inspector reported that “extreme forms of restraint are ... used on some of the most vulnerable prisoners”, and where there were more than 24,000 instances of self-harm and 58 successful suicides in just one year.

Conservatives are probably right that “prison works”, but only in the limited sense that, if you lock someone up, they can’t commit a crime (or they can, but only against other criminals, and in prison, which makes the crime doubly invisible). Prison only cuts crime if the state keeps criminals locked up indefinitely, and that isn’t just expensive, it’s hypocritical and cruel. It does not reduce the sum total of violence, because although your crime may have been shoplifting nappies for a child, it will be replaced with the legal violence of the penal code. Even if prison ‘works’, even just a bit, the radical argument against prison in general remains as strong. We should be locking up far, far fewer people, because it would make all of us more free, and more equal, and no less safe.

But New Labour never wavered in their tough stance on law and order, and that reinforced the prominence of the subject on media and political agendas. This greater presence of crime in our everyday (media) experience appears to have reinforced both the concerns that many people have about crime levels, their certainty that this is a problem requiring an aggressive response, and their perception that this kind of response has not been forthcoming. About 50% of the population considers more bobbies on the beat to be a high priority for Police Commissioners, while only 15% think it’s important that more is spent on rehabilitation. Repressive measures by left-liberals have, if anything, encouraged demands for further repression. 

Turning to the police

We shouldn’t assume that calls for tougher penal policy are a result of any meaningful trust in the police. Satisfaction with the cops is going up, and they are perceived as the most effective part of the Criminal Justice System. But Ipsos MORI have shown that this is only because they are its best known branch, and that as soon as most people come into contact with the police as victims or witnesses, their estimation of the force’s effectiveness reduces significantly.

This really is damning. As the same report shows, individuals using almost any other UK public service generally go away trusting it more. Moreover, you’re likely to trust the police less after interacting with them regardless of your socioeconomic and ethnic background. There could be many reasons for this, including the possibility that some groups are more likely to already have low expectations of the police when they first meet them. But whatever the cause, the Home Office’s research in no way counteracts well-evidenced claims that the police are systematically prejudiced against people from minority ethnic backgrounds who are not victims or witnesses.

“My ex split my lip,” said Aisha. “I didn’t want to call the police because I didn’t want them to get social services. [But] the police were quite good and they knew his history. I was quite convinced they were going to follow procedure, and I did think he would be charged and I was convinced by each officer that was going to happen. They thought he was going down because I had a lot of stitches ... And he got away with it. He got released and didn’t get charged. The police haven’t got a clue.”

It’s clear that the police hardly impress their public service “consumers”. However, people with recent experience of the police are no less likely to call for them to be tougher on crime. Like Aisha, they may see the problem with the cops as being that they regularly fail to be tough enough. The belief that most crime is wrong, the idea that the volume of crime is increasing, and the hope – by turns mournful and angry – for security and justice, lead most people to demand tougher policing and prison policies. Where else could they turn to?

The left’s solution to “bad crime” is an end to economic exploitation and to social and political oppression. But too often this argument has focused solely on the immorality of those structural problems, at the expense of acknowledging the immorality of the problems, such as crime, that they produce. This may be a tactical omission, with the legitimate aim of minimizing the blame heaped on criminals, and thereby quieting calls for a repressive penal policy. The result, however, is the opposite. The left’s solutions sound like a refusal to acknowledge the pain that most crime causes, and that makes our arguments against repression less convincing. If a radical approach to crime and punishment is to gather support, it must define itself as a moral attack on immoral structures – labour exploitation, state violence, racism, male sexual control – that have themselves produced immorality: corporate exploitation, xenophobic political gangs, and also the crimes that those fighting oppression mention less often, like muggings and burglaries.

Many are uncomfortable with the language of morals. We need to control of people who, for instance, hurt those who have not hurt others, or steal from those who lack the resources they need. And if we create a potentially absolute hierarchy of good and bad people, we risk legitimizing violence beyond that strictly necessary for such control. However, the demand for moralizing punishments that fit immoral crimes contains both the ideal of fairness and the identification of present political structures as immoral. This should indicate to those on the left that ours is already a politics of morality. The case against prisons and police is a moral one. Let’s start saying so.

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