Friday, July 30, 2010

crime and punishment vs reform and rehabilitation

Peter Hitchens is running an interesting debate on his blog about crime and punishment and the purpose of prisons. Hitchens is debating with one of the readers of his blog, who draws heavily on articles by Johan Hari in his replies to Hitchens, so much so in fact, that Hitchens' own replies can also be read as a response to Hari's liberal critique of prisons. Worth reading.

"Something for the weekend - my latest rebuttal of the Storke Fallacy, for those interested

I'll respond to Mr Storke by interleaving my replies with his contribution.

Mr Storke: ‘Mr Hitchens amazingly asks: “Why do left-wingers still act and talk as if they were bold rebels, when in fact their ideas are the conventional wisdom of the governing elite and the academy?” Are you serious?’

My response: Mr Storke must learn to treat his opponents with basic respect. Of course I am serious. I have never been more so. I believe Mr Storke is serious, too, which is why I am devoting so much of my week to rebutting his arguments. Mr Storke should recognise that other people may differ from him, instead of falling into a sort of fainting fit when he encounters an opponent who doesn't share his world view.

Mr Storke: ‘Left-wing ideas are not conventional wisdom in our prison policy.’

Me: That is Mr Storke's *opinion*. It is not an established fact. If he would only read my book, especially the essay on Wormwood Scrubs, he would be able to argue this matter effectively. As it is, he will not make the effort to understand my position, which I am making to understand his.

Now, why might this opinion be incorrect? First, who runs the prisons, makes their rules, decides what their purpose is? Why, it is an agency under the control of government which has for almost 60 years been controlled by social democrats and social liberals of three major parties, who believe (like Mr Hari and Mr Storke) that crime is a symptom of 'social diseases' such as bad housing, poverty, the class system etc.

Secondly, what is the ethos of the prisons system? Does it believe that prisons should be punitive, as conservatives do?

How can it? It would be wholly inconsistent of it to do so. It does not believe that crime is the result of wilful wrongdoing (as the old Prison Commissioners did before the modern era). So how could punishment, or deterrence, be morally justified in its view? It believes (like Mr Storke and Mr Hari) that crime is a symptom of other wrongs. If pressed on the question of punishment, it says that the deprivation of liberty in prison is the only punitive element of it. Its stated purpose is a hope that the imprisoned person may be rehabilitated - though it offers no evidence that any such thing takes place, or ever has.

The organisation of HM Prisons is based upon this ethos. Prisoners are not punished as such while they are in prison - except by their fellow-inmates. There are no imposed disciplines, no compulsory hard labour, no real uniform, no severe deprivation of pleasures. On the contrary, the authorities turn a blind eye to the sale of stupefying drugs, and to the presence of illegal mobile phones, as well as permitting phone links with the outside world, lightly-supervised and frequent visits, TVs and other entertainments. In most cases, the sentences served are so short in practice that the deprivation of liberty is a minor inconvenience.

This was once a respectable view, that is, it was respectable before it was tried in modern Britain. Now it is plainly not working. It is not frightening convicted criminals into staying out of prison, nor is it deterring potential criminals from embarking on criminal careers. Nor is it rehabilitating anyone. This is either because rehabilitation of habitual and incorrigible criminals (virtually the only people in prison apart from the deranged) is impossible. Or it may be because it is too difficult and expensive. I tend to the former view, but am prepared to accept the possibility that the second may be correct, if only because it has never been tried and therefore has never been disproved.

The conservative (indeed, the intelligent and constructive) response to this situation would be to accept that the liberal approach has failed, and to reinstate prison's original punitive nature. The liberal response is to keep the prisons for outward show, while continuing to eviscerate the penal system. Wormwood Scrubs, with its grim, penal exterior and its much more relaxed and liberal interior, is a good metaphor for this.

Interestingly, the liberal establishment hires a state-employed inspector of prisons to call, in a series of reports which never address the fundamental problem, for even more liberal approaches. This is because the liberal state maintains prison buildings (as it orders its judges to pass fictional sentences, only half of which will ever be served, at most) only as a sop to the voters. It would much rather not have prisons, or any punitive elements in the system, at all. Its tender conscience rebels at the idea of incarcerating, let alone executing, another human being. But it lacks the political courage to try this on the electorate, hence the absurd arrangement at the moment under which people who don't believe in punishment operate a system which was physically designed to punish, and is no longer allowed even to make moral judgements. One other result of this is that police have become neutral mediators between 'victims' and 'offenders', who are morally equal in the eyes of the law - so much so that a 'victim' who defends himself on the assumption that he has a moral right to do so is treated very harshly indeed.

So it would perhaps be more correct to say that we have a prison system which still has the outward form of a conservative punitive system, but whose actual internal workings and purpose are entirely the work of liberal world-reformers.

Mr Storke again: ’If left-wing ideas are directing our prison policies why is it that The Adult Learning Inspectorate found fewer than 8 percent of prisoners are taught to read and then given meaningful work that could lead to a job on the outside?’

Me: Sigh. One more time. Because left-wing ideas are also directing our schools, which regard effective teaching methods as 'authoritarian' and refuse to use them, resulting in widespread illiteracy. And because undisciplined and disorderly prisons, full of serial offenders on short sentences, are far from ideal places for remedial schooling.

Mr Storke again: ’Worse, one third of prisoners are released to ‘No Fixed Abode’.
As Johann Hari writes, “If we send prisoners back out homeless and illiterate, what do we expect will happen?”

Me: This is a confusion. Prisoners have 'no fixed abode' presumably because they have lost their former abodes while in prison. Does Mr Storke want them rushed to the top of the council waiting list? Does he want their rent paid by the law-abiding while they are locked up? Or what? Plenty of people with small incomes struggle to find places to live and don't commit crimes. Many of them are presumably illiterate, given the prevalence of illiteracy in our population (a problem whose cause Mr Storke has consistently ignored throughout this whole long discussion). But Mr Storke unintentionally raises a different question. If prisons are significantly more comfortable than life on the outside, people will not make much effort to stay out of them. The kind of prisons I envisage would not generally see any of their inmates twice. They would much rather live honestly in a homeless hostel than return.

Mr Storke: ‘If left-wing ideas were the “conventional wisdom” of the elite, Mr Hitchens, then we would not be locking up mentally-ill people without treatment,’

Me: Here we go again, the blank refusal to respond to my repeated point that the use of the word 'mentally-ill' without specifying what he means is obfuscation. I imagine Mr Storke is a victim of the syllogism which says that anyone who does bad things is mentally ill because he does bad things, and does bad things because he is mentally ill. Alas, I cannot accept this logic myself because (as I keep trying to point out) our chief difference is that I believe that people are responsible for their actions and he doesn't.

But, leaving that aside, I have no doubt that 'mentally-ill' people are indeed 'treated' in prison with the drugs which our medical system so readily hands out on the thinnest excuse. What other 'treatment' is available for these subjective complaints, I do not know.

Mr Storke: ‘…offering literacy training to fewer than 8 per cent of prisoners, (despite the fact 60 per cent have a reading age lower than a six-year-old)’

Me: I imagine this has something to do with the practicalities I mention above.

Mr Storke: ‘…refusing to fund rehabilitation projects, (such as the Open Book Project, and the drug rehabilitation projects which Cheshire Drug Squad tried with such excellent effectiveness in the 1980's,)’

Me: Hang on. Weren't these projects publicly funded? And when, please, are we going to get the details of this amazing Cheshire Drug Squad triumph, which I have asked for again and again, and am never given?

Mr Storke: ‘…and closing down 100 drug rehab centres in one year alone (as Mr Hari reported we did in 2009).’

Me: Perhaps they weren't working. I'd need the details.

Mr Storke: ’If left-wing ideas were ‘conventional wisdom’ we would, by now, have tried Switzerland's policies on drugs,’

Me: Not necessarily. But it seems to me that our own legal system's refusal to prosecute, let alone punish people for possessing illegal drugs, and the whole trend of British drugs policy since Baroness Wootton's defeatist report of 1968, has been very similar to the Swiss policy. Has Mr Storke never heard of the Methadone programme? Can he give me a recent instance of a heroin user being prosecuted for possession, and given any sort of punishment?

Mr Storke: ’…and Denmark's policies of rehabilitation and education for prisoners.’

Me: I have now pointed out three times that Denmark, a very wealthy, tiny country entirely different from ours, is a poor comparison. I have also repeatedly asked for details of its alleged successes, which Mr Storke has never supplied. This is the last time I shall bother to respond to him on this topic, at all, unless he provides the evidence to back up his extravagant claims.

Mr Storke: ’We have done neither. All we have done is lock more people in dank, squalid, overcrowded dumps, severed by distance from any contact with relatives, denied any education, or treatment, and released back onto the streets, homeless and illiterate, and worse than they were when they went to jail.’

Me: This is simply, straightforwardly not true of the drug abusers Mr Storke is talking about. (It is only partially true of the treatment of convicted habitual criminals, the main occupants of our prisons, as qualified by what I have written above, and by the prisons chapter in my book, which I urge Mr Storke to read.) This country's treatment of illegal drug users, who are generally treated as in need of treatment rather than of punishment, is utterly different from what Mr Storke describes, and he knows it.

Mr Storke: ’If prison policy is governed by left-wing ideas, how is that the Howard League for Penal Reform found, when it visited child prisoners at Deerbolt Young Offenders Institute, that, although over 60 per cent of these kids could not write their own name, 50 per cent of them there were getting no schooling whatsoever. And that is how we try to turn around the lives of child criminals? No wonder we have such high reoffending rates among adults.’

Me: Because this is what happens when left-wing ideas dominate a country. Because left-wing ideas are based on several fundamental misapprehensions about human nature. And because this ends in chaos and pathos of this kind. Always has, always will. That's why. But I would also mention that the Howard League is not exactly a neutral observer, and that Mr Storke's use of the word 'child' to describe the hulking, feral louts who generally populate YoIs is disingenuous.

Mr Storke: ’Mr Hari reports over 50 per cent of male prisoners lose touch with their families because, due to prison overcrowding, over 5000 prisoners are kept in jails more than six hours from relatives, and many can’t afford the journey. Yet figures show those prisoners who can stay in touch with their families (so they are not released back into life, alone and bereft of contact with their children or relatives) are 20 per cent less likely to reoffend.’

Me: Perhaps. I'd like to see these 'figures', which (if they are like most of Mr Storke's research) might mean something else entirely. But some points arise. The prisons are overcrowded because they aren't frightening enough, and too many people are ready to risk being sent to them. Prisoners are not there because they've behaved responsibly towards their families, or anyone else. Perhaps they should have thought about their family life before they committed the crimes that put them there.

Mr Storke: ’Mr Hitchens continues to dispute the Zurich research.’

Me: No, I don't. This is a perfect example of how Mr Storke doesn't pay attention. I haven't *seen* the accursed Zurich research. So far as I can tell, Mr Storke hasn't seen it either, just partisan reports of it.

Mr Storke: ’I am afraid the facts demolish Mr Hitchens’ position.’

Me: No, they don't. Mr Storke (who loves to use words like 'demolish’ rather than to address the points I raise) has yet to realise that if the Zurich project had completely ended the use of illegal heroin in that city (which I doubt) I would still oppose it. I think the possession of heroin is a crime to punished, not a desire to be subsidised at the expense of the law-abiding. I think that if heroin users were locked up for their crimes, we would have very few of them.

Mr Storke: ’Heroin abuse did not just fall by 4 per cent, Mr Hitchens. It fell by 4 per cent EACH YEAR.’

Me: I know. I know because it was I who produced this figure, which Mr Storke had unaccountably omitted from his version of the 'Independent 'story. He hasn't explained why. And now he has the nerve to wave this fact about as if I am suppressing or ignoring it. What larks.

Mr Storke: ’It has now fallen by 82 per cent. In Zurich alone, the number of addicts dropped from 850 when the scheme began, to just 150, by 2002.’

Me: But what is it that has actually fallen? The fact is that the policy (as again described in a sentence omitted from Mr Storke's version and supplied by me) means that these heroin users are now taking an alternative stupefying drug all the time, paid for at a rate of £33 a day per head, by the taxpayers of Switzerland. To say they are no longer 'heroin addicts' may be technically correct, but it is not really the truth about their lives.

The filthy crime of drug-abuse has not stopped. It has instead become a nationalised industry.

Mr Storke: ’Mr Hitchens says there has only been a significant fall in new users of drugs. But these are the people the policy is aimed at. The purpose of this policy, like the purpose of deterrence, (which Mr Hitchens likes so much) is not just to help existing users but, most importantly, to prevent potential drug users taking up drugs.’

Me: But I do not think it is doing so. They are just using legal drugs given to them by the state. Deterrence would not have this effect.

Mr Storke: ’Like the purpose of deterrence is not just its effect on existing criminals, but on potential criminals, too. In this respect, it has been a roaring success, with an 82 per cent overall reduction in new users, and a massive ‘de-glamourisation’ of the drug among teens and young people (who are the group most vulnerable to experimentation with drugs).’

Me: See above.

Mr Storke: ’Mr Hitchens chose to ignore the crucial quotes from the report's authors, that the drug policy also led to a decline in crime, and drug-related deaths (whereas Britain, which does not have the Swiss policy, has the highest rate of drug-related deaths in Europe).’

Me: Sorry about that. I was at least busy answering Mr Storke's other questions, though he never answers any of mine. Well, if you ‘avoid crime’ by paying criminals to commit crime, using money squeezed out of honest hardworking folk in taxes, then it seems to me that you have made the state an accomplice to crime, so that the taxman robs us all on behalf of the criminal heroin user. The arrangement of ‘Subsidise disgusting workshy self-indulgent behaviour, or face having your home broken into by wild-eyed junkies’ seems to me to be fundamentally wrong, on a moral level with a protection racket or a blackmail demand. Even Mr Storke, I imagine, would oppose a scheme for paying would-be Bernie Madoffs millions of pounds in taxpayers' money, in return for them restraining themselves from robbing their clients. But the principle is the same. And I am against it, on principle.

Mr Storke: ‘But another fact (sorry, but this is again from a Johann Hari article) shows the Swiss burglary rate has also fallen by 70 per cent since they tried this approach (see the excellent Hari article Crime Problem?: Just Lock ‘Em In The Lavatory).’

Me: Source again, please? And see above, anyway.

Mr Storke: ’Mr Hitchens complains that I ask him to check sources with Mr Hari. I do this, because Mr Hari won’t reply to my emails,’

Me: Has Mr Storke actually asked Mr Hari to help him? And has Mr Hari actually refused, or ignored him? If so, I shall have something to say about that. If it is just a case of Mr Storke being too overcome with admiration for his hero to dare to approach him, then I urge him to try. Mr Hari, in my experience, is not puffed up or grand.

Mr Storke: ’…but, as a respected journalist, he would reply to yours.’

Me: I am touched by his faith. Perhaps so, but perhaps not. Anyway, if Mr Storke is not ready to do his own research, I'm not really ready to nursemaid him. I try to be fair to opponents, but there are limits to my generosity. As for Mr Hari's willingness to reply to me, some people like to debate with their readers. Others don't. I myself found it impossible to handle my e-mails, in the days when I published an address. I tried, but it was just too much.

Mr Storke: ’I also do this, because Mr Hitchens questions the Denmark statistics. Yet Mr Hari has quoted them in three separate articles. So, if you won’t believe them, are you saying he made it up?’

Me: No. I just make it a rule to read research before employing it in an argument.

The rest of Mr Storke's post seems to me to go round and round an old circuit, and I haven't time to rehearse my replies to his elderly and much-used points."

1 comment:

JP said...

Interesting. I think PH and TD would see eye to eye on this, and most things:

Great Britain - A Land Fit For Criminals