The politics of decarceration


I risk ridicule by penning a piece on criminology. Will anyone take it seriously? (Will I ever stop asking rhetorical questions?)

Ministry of Mahem?
The Ministry of Justice has only just been created; there are already calls for a review. The most senior judge in England and Wales, Lord Chief Justice Lord Philips, said the judiciary did not see eye to eye with the Lord Chancellor on the new ministry, which is to be responsible for prisons, probation, and sentencing.

The worry is that money will get siphoned off to pay for New Labour’s mass incarceration policies, leaving the judging business short. Despite New Labour being filled to the gills will lawyers, none of them seem too interested in due process and the rule of law, which is just as well when one considers their corruption and complicity in war crimes.

Splitting the Home Office was a controversial measure, and not expected to result in a great improvement on the past failings which made it unfit for purpose.

You would think it would ensure that existing problems were doubled…

Reid on
The man who has spearheaded this reform, John Reid, is to quit when Blair goes. One wonders if he’s trying at all. A few weeks ago he made a call to the other G7 countries to follow suit and create an Interior Ministry to tackle terrorism, organised crime, etc.

Now he’s slowly fading away. The tough-talking ex-Communist Reid knows he’ll not fare well under the rule of mumbling “Stalinist” Brown.

But this isn’t what I wanted to talk about. No, I wanted to discuss prison overcrowding and the impact this will have on policy.

The prison population is at a record high – 80,000 people are banged up. The prisons are full and prisoners are being kept in police cells at a ridiculous cost.

Tough-guy Reid has already been forced to remind the judiciary that custodial sentences should be reserved for only violent and dangerous offenders – a move which was tackled sympathetically by TV news at the time, I recall. Reid might want to get out of the Home Secretary job in case the shit really hits the fan.

For the first time ever the government might actually have to adopt a bifurcation policy – if it hasn’t already. What’s bifurcation then?

Well, bifurcation – splitting in two – is a term used to describe a penal policy in which only violent criminals are incarcerated; non-violent offenders are given fines, community sentences, and treatment. It appears to be a sensible policy, but there’s a catch coming up for the capitalist class.

The argument for bifurcation goes like this: prison doesn’t give people skills, get people off drugs, or help them manage their anger. Therefore custodial sentences should only be given to those people who have acted violently; non-custodial sentences, though they have high recidivism rates, appear to reform criminals more effectively.

The main argument against bifurcation is that prison works in getting people off the streets, criminals are taken out of communities. This is usually countered with: well, as the overwhelming majority of prisoners are going to be released at some point in the future, can we say that re-offending rates are reduced amongst those who have been incarcerated?

Now, the problem I have with the bifurcation policy is that it is purely prescriptive, and though it is based on a sound understanding of the impact of prison, it does not have a firm understanding of why the criminal justice system has “failed”.

There are no broader implications about the crimogenic nature of social institutions inherent in the bifurcation policy. There may be talk about tabloid newspapers and populist politicians; there is usually no understanding of the class nature of crime.

Crimes of the powerless
To illustrate this, let me sight a recent example. Retailers complain that fixed-penalty fines for shoplifters do not act as a deterrent and have led to increases in theft from stores. Obviously, shoplifting is not typically a violent crime. The response to apprehension might be aggressive, but the act of theft is usually impersonal. The thief takes items from the selves and walks out of the shop without paying for them.

The crimes that bother most people are the more serious ones. By any standards, shoplifting is not a serious crime, when compared to offences against the person.

Now I’m not advocating shoplifting, or saying that there would be no enforcement of property rights under socialism, [1] I am just pointing out that people are more concerned about stopping offences against the person.

Shoplifting is a crime of the powerless. An individual offender is not responsible for massive disruption in the economy, although offenders collectively do cause problems. Note that theft from shops is not only committed by customers – retailers complain of high levels of theft by employees.

Crimes of the powerful
These have a much larger impact because of they relate to abuses of power by people with lots of it – hence, the bigger impact. Often the victims are unaware of the crime, the misdeed is systemic, and the perpetrators are thus anonymous.

Offences include bribery, insider dealing, oligopolistic price fixing, “mis-selling”, war crimes, electoral fraud, and tax evasion. And so on. (I would like to include, if I may, the sale of public property without the permission of the owners.)

And yet, these serious, high-impact crimes are seldom punished, and if they are punished it is not with the severity meted out to working class lawbreakers. Why is this?

The legal framework of the capitalist state benefits the owning class at the expense of working class. Where the state is tasked with defending the property rights of the working class against the former owners and other capitalist states, the crime rate tends to be lower. This is because the problems that occur under capitalism can be better solved under socialism.

Back to the present day, and the demands that theft – no matter how trivial – be punished so that the act of pilfering carries a strong disincentive. And yes, property crime is a concern when it affects us as individuals: no one wants their personal possessions to get pinched. But it is not for this reason that the bifurcation policy will not be followed by the government. The government does not act to insure the health and wellbeing of the population, but rather to insure the health and wellbeing of capitalism.

The judges are right to worry about their budgets being dipped into: the bifurcation policy practiced by the government cannot be pure and principled because the capitalist class regards crimes against their property as most deserving of punishment. And the government will want any individual pensioners who refuse to pay the regressive council tax to go to jail; if the punishment was a non-custodial sentence there would soon be a council tax revolt.

Beyond penal reform, towards a criminal justice policy
The revolutionary left press does not concern itself with the criminal justice system, which is a great shame. Crimes against the person (and against social property) exist under socialism, and we can’t expect that removing social injustice will lead to an immediate transformation of society.

A factor missing from bourgeois discourse on criminal justice is the question of which class is hegemonic, and so calls for the public to be able to hold police officers and the judiciary accountable ignore the fact that the purpose of the law under capitalism is to protect the rights of millionaires and not the millions.

I won’t bore you with examples of police turning up mob-handed to assist with a calamity that has befallen an affluent individual or a political figure and compare them with the not-so-rapid response of the police to calls from ordinary people. To be sure, it is more than anecdotal.

A revolutionary socialist approach to criminal justice will, in practice, include penal reform, along with forms of restorative justice. There must be a prefigurative attitude to reforms in the direction of penal reform and restorative justice; they should be critically welcomed. And though they might be coded as rightist measures, reforms that enable communities to hold police forces and individual officers accountable for their actions should be welcomed by socialists.

This is no the place to expand upon the class nature of the prison system. I’m sure you can gather your own examples of working class people being sent to prison for minor non-violent offences, like non-payment of rates, and compare them with lax sentences given to rich individuals.

I do think that it is worth noting that bifurcation has been implemented out of necessity, because there are no more cells, rather than out of any enlightened liberal tendency amongst politicians or judges.

The debate has shifted on a key area of struggle. Community sentences and restorative justice schemes are now being given more attention. This might not be unconnected from the neo-liberal state’s role as central contractor, moving away from central provider. Certainly, if the prison system is further privatised, re-offending rates will only climb higher. (And the probation system, which is being privatised, might end up in total disarray but as the new providers include charities able to cater to the needs of offenders some good might come of this disaster.)

The socialist intervention in the criminal justice discourse is vital: for the best we as a class can be empowered to tackle crime in our communities is if we take power to put an end to the criminal capitalist system, and the only way issues of drug addiction, prostitution, domestic violence, and anti-social behaviour can be resolved is if the economic system that exacerbates these problems is transcended.

[1] There are property rights under socialism, however they are qualitatively different from the rights to private property under capitalism. The means of production, distribution and exchange are owned collectively by workers; enforcement of property rights is focused on guarding against industrial sabotage and breaches of entitlement whilst ensuring civil rights are upheld and social rights are enforced. I’ll expand on this further, if anyone is interested.

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: , . 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “The politics of decarceration”

  1. Andrew Hatton Says:

    Well said.

    A pity this blog is not read by more.

    My experience after 30 years as a probation officer is well represented in this article.

    The place of the media and the way politician’s seeking to hold or gain power are also important factors in the way the CJS has become increasingly party politicised in England and Wales.

  2. charliemarks Says:

    Thank you for your kind comments, Andrew, both on this post and others. And though I appear to belittle this in the article, I do agree with you that the CJS has been politicised and is subject to undue influence by the media.

    The fact that the government policy of locking more people up was not accompanied by the building of more prisons is a notable case of mismanagement, and the solution has been to effectively let people be released early. I expect that the media will make much of the re-offending by these people — and I do expect there to be re-offending, as the recidivism rate is high. Brown plans to build more prisons, but I suspect that the government will have to back-track on sentencing policies and focus on alternative solutions to non-violent offending.

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