In the hot sun

Obsolete has an excellent, if inevitably depressing, analysis of the latest from Louise Casey. I was particularly struck by one line in particular: apparently Casey thinks it’s important

to get the public more engaged in tackling crime and to stop the erosion of community spirit.

Oh-oh – Broken Windows alert. Criminologists have spent years of their lives trying to make sense of this stuff – what ‘community spirit’ is, how you can tell whether it’s eroded or not and what the actual causal connection is between community spirit and the level of crime. By and large, they haven’t had much success. And, if you look at the original article and subsequent papers by the main proponents of this stuff – Bill Bratton as well as Kelling and Wilson in the US, Norman Dennis and Ray Mallon over here – that’s not surprising: the parts about how it’s actually supposed to work are quite insultingly vague. In point of fact, the original article is only incidentally about crime; it’s about policing, but policing in the service of a certain kind of social order. The focus isn’t crime prevention, in other words, so much as the prevention of disorder as an end in itself – an emphasis which I think you can find in a lot of subsequent ‘communitarian’ work on crime prevention, including the much more sophisticated work of people like Martin Innes.

The worst of it is that, at least in its cruder forms, this model is more or less untestable. Which, in turn, makes it more or less impossible to disprove: you can always look around you and see disorder, fear of crime and a lack of community spirit. So it never dies – at least, not for as long as there are journalists and politicians willing to keep it fresh.

I’ll leave detailed comment on Casey’s report to Obsolete, at least until I’ve had a chance to read the thing. For now I’ll just comment on one point from the report, which has been widely publicised: the proposal to make community service more punitive, by calling it ‘Community Payback’ and making the people doing it wear high-visibility jackets. Obsolete points out that, for better or worse, both of these proposals are already in place in some parts of the country, and comments: it doesn’t seem to have altered the impression that it’s a soft option, possibly because that’s what the popular press always refers to it as.

I’d go further: I think being ‘not punitive enough’ is widely seen as part of the definition of community service, essentially by virtue of it not being prison. That being the case, making it more visible is likely to set up a feedback loop which could make matters much worse. If you see a bunch of blokes weeding a verge or picking up litter, and not obviously having a really horrible time of it – they might be chatting among themselves, they might even be stopping for a fag – you’re not going to think I spy Evil Criminals Getting Punished! You might even think I spy Evil Criminals Having A Jolly Nice Time! – obviously ignoring the fact that the chat or the fag break came in the middle of several hours of menial labour, at the end of which they’d have no money and just as many bills to pay. But we can’t have that, think Casey and her ilk, so clearly community service will need to be made ‘tougher’ – keep ’em at it every minute of the day, no breaks, no talking…

But, at least in the last couple of centuries, sentencing has never been about punishment and nothing but. More to the point, custodial and community-based sentences have never been designed on the basis of making the convict’s life a misery every minute of the day. For a set period, your time is forfeit – your life is not your own; that is the punishment. The logic of Casey’s position is to, literally, scapegoat people on community sentences – turn them into a kind of all-purpose scratching-post for people to let out their hatred and fear of ‘criminals’ (which is a big subject in itself, and certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do with the level of crime). Petrol’s up again… more dead in Afghanistan… another stabbing down the road… guy in an orange jumpsuit and a tag cutting the verge, looks really miserable about it, well serve you bloody well right pal! As a way of treating actual flesh-and-blood offenders – and offenders who, by definition, won’t be guilty of anything very serious – it leaves just about everything to be desired.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 21 June 2008 at 10:20 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m not sure there actually is any logic in Casey’s position, apart from the one that involves saying the sort of things that one needs to say in order to keep the position that one holds.

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