Reflecting on Crime and punishment

A Paper known as the ‘Identikit Prisoner’ (1991), which summarised the types of people most likely to fill our prisons, found that they were generally those who had suffered from a multitude of social and economic disadvantages such as race, class, gender, health, education, unemployment and homelessness. A large number of them also had mental problems and for the whole range, the Paper concluded that prison only exacerbated the disadvantages that had put these people into crime in the first place! As these are the kind of people who repeatedly serve jail terms, come out, and go back in again, this tells us that not only does prison not work for the majority of the prison population, but also that the criminal justice system is not largely about democracy or even about justice itself, it is more about punishing those who are poor, powerless and disadvantaged.17
Social security fraud can also be seen as another illegitimate response to living in poverty. Wherever benefits do not meet needs, some see solutions like ‘working on the side’ as necessary to make ends meet. This helps keep unemployment high and wages low while maintaining a vulnerable, disposable workforce for the informal labour market. In turn, this reproduces the very constraints of unemployment, casual, part-time, and poorly paid jobs, which keep claimants in the poverty trap. Research into this has shown that overall the main reason for individual benefit fraud is one of economic necessity, which is backed by staff working in local benefit offices that recognise that the majority of social security frauds are disorganised crimes of need rather than greed. Acknowledging benefit frauds are crimes of poverty does not mean condoning them rather, it shows an understanding of the circumstances in which they (and other crimes of poverty) are most likely to be committed. By doing so, it can signal just and decent minded
anti-crime policies towards getting rid of the stigmatising effects of the commonly held ‘scum’ and ‘scrounger’ mythologies of those who are marginalised by society, which onl’ generate and reinforce social exclusion.18
On the other hand, white-collar crime seems to have no stigma attached to it at all. Of all the crimes missing from official statistics, victim surveys, and the crime and campaigning agenda, white-collar crime is the missing element. This is defined as crimes committed by persons of respectability and high social standing in the course of an occupation, which is regulated by law. All such crimes are motivated by greed (certainly not want) and are perpetrated by either individuals or corporations who aim at acts which involve the smallest danger of detection an identification, and against which the victim? are least likely to fight. While this shows th; both the poor and the rich commit crimes, the procedure for dealing with each is startling. For instance, higher social groups benefit from a different implementation of the law where for example, they rarely suffer the stigma of the ‘public resentment’ which is orchestrated against ‘traditional’ criminal types like the ‘dole cheat’ or the ‘benefit scrounger’. Again, while the latter can hardly excuse themselves for say, being ‘over-enthusiastic’ about committing benefit fraud to make ends meet, this is jus the very excuse used for the likes of Nick Leeson who in 1995, gambled away £865 million of his bank’s money on the Stock Exchange. In other words, although people of all classes commit crimes, the crime tha damages society most is often committed by the very rich. The fact that lower-class crime is stigmatised most, is in itself a forrr of discrimination.19
A report commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1983-1985 (‘ Faith in the City’), enlarged on this idea by stating that poverty was not just about shortage of money but also about rights and relationships; about how people are treate and how they regard themselves. Relative poverty also concerned powerlessness, exclusion, and a loss of dignity.20 None of this mattered in 1989 when the Secretary of State for Social Security, John Moore, claimed that Capitalism had wiped out absolute poverty, in the sense of Rowntree’s concept, and that relative poverty was a fiction dreamed up by ‘ivory-tower’ academics (in the 1960s) to explain inequality. Perhaps this man Moore, the champion of Capitalism, had never read about the creation and the purpose of Capitalism, and how it can cause both poverty and relative poverty, in Adam Smith’s definitive book on the theme The Wealth of Nations, 1812.21
The government’s claim in 1998 that it intended to build a ‘just and tolerant’ society to try and redress some of the above problems seemed commendable. However, government policies since then have been concerned with the marshalling of opinion towards moral closure, the suppression of dissent, and institutional intolerance while relatively innocuous activities like barking dogs, squeegee merchants, and youths hanging about street corners have been shown a striking intolerance. Tied to all types of ‘crime’ the government is also constantly reminding us that we are ‘at war’, where such language infers that the ‘enemy’ must be defeated and not tolerated. ‘Zero tolerance’ or, in reality, selective intolerance, is given much support while being ‘tough on crime’ means (according to Jack Straw) the instigation of harder prison sentences for serious criminals. Straw also insisted that the whole purpose of our criminal justice system was to ‘catch and punish offenders – not to make excuses for them.
The drastic return of the ‘new’ penology alongside the ‘decivilising’ processes shows society’s present acceptance of the tolerance of inequality. Just as those at the top are being allowed to take disproportionate rewards for their performances, so those at the lower end of the social scale who ‘fail’ are punished severely. However, people do care for the lack of any clear difference between present-day political parties has led to much political antipathy and cynicism towards their messages, which in turn has led to a legitimating deficit where it becomes harder to mobilise the public behind government policies. Global communication and the sharing of information between world communities has led to world condemnation of intolerance and a marked change in the organisation of the state, which involves a process whereby decision-making is becoming more international and localised at the same time.
If social policies have failed and are in fact shaping the conditions under which more crime is being committed, then what’s to be done? Is it not time to employ them in a different manner where, instead of focusing on how they have combined to demoralise society (thereby causing crime), the emphasis could be placed on the social and material effects of economic inequality? We could try to ensure that the criminal justice system operates in such as way that it would do less harm (and maybe some good) to those who are processed through its doors and further, by combining social justice and criminal justice we can fight the conditions of poverty and social exclusion which are sources of crime. At the same time, this approach would mean policing and punishing the crimes of the rich in a fashion comparable to that aimed at the criminal poor. Focusing on the bad results of inequality and intolerance would inevitably broaden out beyond the criminal justice system into other areas like jobs, housing, and other benefits, while focusing on the good results of community planning would in fact help eradicate all aspects of inequality itself.22
Another way of closing the door on the sources of crime is for the executive to correct the unequal distribution of earned income through a fairer system of taxation, which is funnelled towards the poor and not as at present, towards those who already have more than enough. Also, the social security system should get tough on the causes of benefit fraud instead of pushing people into this situation in the first place. Reforms, which concentrate only on reductions, inevitably punish the poor who are forced onto benefits through policies and problems outside the system and their control. It is time then to stop punishing the poor because they are poor, and making the marginalised pay for their poverty. This is the responsibility of everyone in Britain because the size of the social security bill is not the primary problem; it is a symptom of the failures elsewhere in our society that could affect their ability to participate in development priorities.
17 Cook, 1997, p. 86-95
18 Cook, 1979, p. 36-40 19Worrall, 1997, p. 20 20O’Brien, etal.,1985, p. 195
21 Oppenheim, 1985, p. 9
22 Cook, 1997, p. 155-164