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Nick Paget-Brown: Crime and the Missing Culture of Punishment

Pagetbrown_nick Nick Paget-Brown is a Councillor in Kensington & Chelsea where he is Cabinet member for regeneration. He was previously constituency chairman and has also been a Parliamentary candidate. He runs a consultancy specialising in environmental policy.

So, the latest Queen’s Speech promises even more legislation designed to make an ever-wider range of activities illegal. Unfortunately, as we have come to see from each of these annual inventories of intentions, this Government has shown itself to be hooked on the magical properties of legislation whilst blind to the significance of the powerful cultural and moral values pulling in the opposite direction. Nowhere has this dichotomy been more obvious than in the failure effectively to deal with anti-social behaviour. For years, the Government has proved incapable of addressing the design of a range of effective and plausible sanctions targeted at lawbreakers. The notion of deterrence has withered. Who has stolen the culture of punishment?

It is well-documented that disruptive youths are responsible for many of the anti-social activities which wreck our town and city centres on most evenings and make life intolerable for law-abiding residents. And yet, the current criminal justice system veers between ineffectual hand-wringing and the threat of an eventual big stick in the form of imprisonment in totally unsuitable institutions. The latter succeeds mainly in fostering criminal mind-sets and, for many, will undoubtedly represent the beginning of a journey of “no return” into a life of crime.  All the institutional support provided by the state is therefore designed to avoid the disaster of such a custodial sentence and, it is not surprising that the most disruptive young offenders are fully aware of this and seek to take advantage of it.

A terrible lack of imagination and willpower about enforcement and restitution lies at the heart of the problem. Many professionals have a problem – even with the word punishment – and prefer to get straight on to rehabilitation. The ASBO has done little to change things. For those young people who have crossed the line which separates relatively minor misdemeanours from a fully criminal lifestyle, it is a gambling certainty that no significant action will have been taken against them until they finally reach the stage where a custodial sentence is inevitable. It is this unchallenged escalation which is so damaging. What is needed is a series of milestones before extreme and often counter-productive punishments are ever reached. On this issue, the Government suffers from an extraordinary imagination deficit, where spin about community punishments has long out-stripped the prosaic reality that probation and restitution are not high priorities. The Queen’s Speech might have been a chance to make some progress on alternative and more effective sanctions, but yet again, an opportunity has been missed.

For example, the concept of “a night in the cells whilst we decide what to do with you”, appears no longer to feature prominently as a sanction available to the police as a means of dealing with anti-social or drunken youths. No doubt it would soon be challenged as  involving a loss of human rights and the bureaucracy of invoking any such a punishment would become arduous and off-putting. Similarly, in reality, the public never see any of the “Task Forces” ostensibly intended to require young offenders to clean up the areas which they have despoiled.  Likewise, there seems to be no Government commitment to a full system of residential placements over a series of weekends, which would deprive offenders of a degree of liberty at “peak times” whilst engaging them in worthwhile community activity designed to stretch them physically and mentally. Rather than weeks on remand in a young offenders’ institution, offenders should be required to attend alternative, more pro-active youth rehabilitation centres. Their parents would be legally accountable for ensuring that they did, fully backed up by youth workers, probation officers and the police. Drugs and alcohol would be completely banned. Physical exercise and education in basic citizenship would be integral to the programme. However, setting up running and monitoring such centres, requires a Home Office “fit for purpose” and more culturally attuned to public concerns.

Police and parents both need to know that there are many ways in which young people can make restitution for persistent anti-social behaviour. For example, a range of minor offences could carry fines in the form of “penalty points” which would have to be worked off. Under such a scheme, the painting of graffiti could carry a fine of 10 points, acts of vandalism could be punishable with 20 points, behaving drunkenly or causing offence in public, which the police too often seem unwilling or unable to address directly, could carry penalties of between 10 and 20 points. Points would be issued and recorded by Police and Police Community Support Officers. Head Teachers might also have the power.

These points could be worked off on a range of public improvement activities at times over a weekend when offenders would prefer to be doing something else. Each six-hour block, properly and fully worked, would represent, say, three points deducted.  Anyone with more than 20 points would be sent automatically on a rehabilitation weekend where they would undertake the restoration of neglected and vandalised public spaces which require a clean-up. The points could be worked off and no criminal record would ensue. Keeping out of trouble for a year or more could also contribute to a reduction in the number of points. Parents would also need to be involved and could carry a personal financial liability for ensuring that each point was worked off. The aim would be to deprive perpetrators of their freedom for limited periods and to involve them in public acts of restitution where they would visibly be seen to be contributing to diminishing the damage that they, or others like them had caused. Such a scheme would also involve closer inter-action between young people and their parents and pose each with some clear choices.

Unfortunately, the current direction of legislation shows clearly that whilst we are weighed down by an ever-increasing torrent of laws forbidding things, the cultural values which ought to underpin a truly accountable society, are pointing in a completely different direction. The mismatch between our “liberal culture” fostered and protected by unaccountable “professionals” in alliance with parts of the media, and the real concern of the public to see practical, visible but “positive” sanctions and punishments has become enormous but is largely ignored. Cultural timidity has trumped legislative intent. It is this dislocation which accounts for much of the current public disdain for politics. Until the three elements of morality, policy and culture, essential for the law to have true credibility and to command a consensus, are back in “synch”, however gracious her speech, Her Majesty’s Government will continue to whistle in the wind.


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