Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/207/8521
THE THREE main parties of big business have all made law and order a central plank of their election programmes. Each accuses its opponents of being 'soft on crime'. MICHAEL LAWRENCE, a criminal justice worker, discusses the issues behind the law-and-order debate and asks how socialists should counter the capitalist parties' offensive on crime.
Law and order: Soft on a criminal system
DON'T LET anyone tell you voters have no choice in this election. Vote for PC Blair and you are promised thousands more police on the streets, more support for the victims of crime, and a no-holds-barred clampdown on villains.
Alternatively, you could vote for PC Hague and get thousands more police on the streets, and - well, the same again.
Meanwhile, PC Kennedy is slightly concerned that what PC Blair and PC Hague are doing is "undermining civil liberties". At the same time, he feels we need thousands more police on the streets, more support for victims of crime and a no-holds-barred...
In the last eight years, the official debate on criminal justice has been driven to the right. In 1991 a Tory Home Secretary said prison was "an expensive way of making bad people worse". Judges were told to consider alternatives to custody and where they did pass custodial sentences, simply "make the punishment fit the crime".
A few years later, Michael Howard as Home Secretary announced: "prison works". Soon Tony Blair as shadow home secretary was starting his campaign to turn Labour into a party of big business by competing with Howard under the slogan "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime".
Having conquered the Tories' territory, New Labour has kept up a ceaseless round of legislation, press releases and reports on criminal justice. The right to trial by jury has been attacked, so far unsuccessfully, and Labour has raised the possibility of prosecutors being able to reveal defendants' past convictions in court in certain circumstances.
This would lead to more miscarriages of justice, with the scales tipped against an innocent defendant with a record.
In February, a government report announced 100,000 'persistent offenders' are responsible for over half of all crime.
On 'zero tolerance' principles imported from the United States, Labour resolved to target this group with "increased severity of punishment" for each conviction. It pledged to track 2,500 of them 24 hours a day!
However, the document admits the membership of this 100,000 is constantly changing. In other words, there is no list of 'usual suspects' for the authorities to pursue. Significantly, the crime section of the Labour Manifesto runs to hundreds of words but doesn't mention this.
The Guardian says such ideas will lead to people being sentenced for what they are, not for what they have done and points out this is just a new version of Howard's 'two strikes and you're out'. In the USA, it "led to a life sentence for a pizza slice theft" (Guardian 16 May).
AS WITH Labour's naughty 100,000, the reality behind criminal statistics is more complicated than in the soundbites of capitalist politicians.
Over much of the 1990s, recorded crime fell in the USA. The apostles of 'zero tolerance' immediately claimed credit. But others pointed out that over the same period there was a fall in the number of young men in the 15-30 age group, the classic pool from which offenders are drawn and the crack-cocaine epidemic in American cities declined.
Labour says its policies have cut recorded crime. But some commentators say violent crime is still rising. Meanwhile, recorded crime only accounts for a third of all crime.
All the capitalist politicians pose as the friend of the victims of crime. Labour is pushing the old idea of victims having an input to the criminal justice process and offering opinions on the sentences given to their assailant (or at least, the person convicted).
But if two victims of the same type of crime adopt different views on each defendant and their opinions affect the court's decision, this will undermine any principles of fairness.
How much do the establishment parties really care about victims? Last week, in a Bush-style dirty broadcast, the Tories hurled allegations about a government tagging scheme, which their spokesperson had supported, leading to rapes taking place.
Earlier Labour had exploited the same issue by changing the law to prevent defendants in rape trials cross-examining their alleged victims.
Rape is one of the most traumatic crimes. But many rape crisis centres, which offer long-term support to victims, can no longer operate.
Law-n-order politicians have slashed the funding for these and other groups at local and national level. So much for 'supporting victims'!
Roots of crime
HOW SHOULD socialists take up the issue of criminal justice?
Socialism means a society based on human solidarity, with the mass of the population exerting democratic ownership and control of production.
Socialists do not condone or idealise genuine crime - as opposed to the new 'offences' which criminalise legitimate demonstrations and other kinds of innocent behaviour.
A 'life of crime' is no way out for working-class youth, or anyone. Sometimes people enter upon lawbreaking as a form of raw protest against the system. But individual bids for 'liberation' like this generally end in the brutalisation and waste of prison.
Working people pay for crime. First as the main victims of burglary and then through our taxes for the police and the apparatus of state power over which we have no control.
Finally, we pay with the loss of our civil liberties, when capitalist governments get away with using the supposed 'war on crime' to increase police powers and roll back rights to free speech, public assembly and so on.
The amount of money lost by top supermarkets through theft, for example, is trivial compared to their profits. Socialist lose little sleep over this loss. But ordinary people are made to pay for this through increased insurance premiums and security systems.
Workers and youth should take collective political action to campaign for public ownership and do a 'supermarket sweep' of these and the other big corporations which have a stranglehold over our lives.
We understand why people trapped in poverty, or desperate to get drugs they've become dependent on, may be driven to shoplifting. But we believe in fighting inequality and support the case for a change in society.
We expose the social roots of crime, including poverty, low pay, 'hidden' unemployment, a crisis-ridden education system and the catastrophic de-industrialisation which has taken place in many working-class communities as a result of Labour and Tory market policies.
Capitalist ideology does the exact opposite. Apologists for the system are intent on obscuring the real causes of crime. Instead they demonise individuals who get caught up in the criminal justice system.
Instances like the tragic death of the toddler James Bulger are milked ruthlessly by the tabloid press, big business politicians, police chiefs and others. They are wheeled out to reinforce demands for get-tough policies and help perpetuate the idea of a minority of wicked outcasts beyond the pale of 'respectable' society.
Yet, a survey by Mori for the government's own Youth Justice Board has just revealed a quarter of secondary school students admit to committing crime. For young people excluded from school the proportions are two-to-three times higher.
Criminal justice offensives are justified to protect the 'little man and woman'. In reality, at elections, hang 'em, flog 'em policies are targeted mainly at the upper middle class and wealthy voters of so-called 'Middle England' whom capitalist parties fall over themselves to please.
Between elections, big business propaganda on crime is designed to keep working people in line. Ultimately what is at stake isn't cars, mobile phones or garden gnomes, but the wealth and privileges of the ruling class.
TONY BLAIR'S '100,000 persistent criminals' are not the latest tragic generation of youth drawn into an offending lifestyle. They're the tiny unelected minority of super-rich shareholders, at the top of a few major companies, who control the bulk of industry and land and exercise a stranglehold over society.
Social phenomena such as petty offending are symptoms of the divisions in a problem-ridden capitalist society. Socialists do not condone real crime. At the same time, we do condemn the establishment political agenda behind the business parties' law-and-order bandwagon.
To get real justice we need to fight for social justice - a socialist society. With the power of the ruling class ended and the waste of capitalism removed, a completely fresh approach to justice could be implemented.
There would be no need for an expensive, brutal and racist prison system. These resources and more could be ploughed into alternatives which really support individuals in difficulty and genuinely serve the community.
Socialist planning would include a new democratic justice system under popular control, unlike the current set-up, where Crown Court judges on salaries of £100,000-plus who are completely insulated from the pressures of ordinary life, sentence ordinary people and lecture them about thrift and hard work.
As an immediate demand we must fight for the police to be brought under democratic control by the communities they are meant to serve.
Abolish the Criminal Justice Act, no curtailment of jury trials.
End the rule of profit. For a socialist plan of production and a society run to meet the needs of all.
Britain has a higher proportion of the population in prison than any EU state except Portugal. The dictatorships in Burma, China and Saudi Arabia have lower imprisonment rates than Britain.
Over the period 1925-1985 there were only six major acts of Parliament on criminal justice, while between 1986 and 1998 there were ten.
In the last 20 years, there have been over 80 pieces of criminal legislation. During the same period conviction rates fell from 18% of all recorded crime in 1980 to 9% last year.
Since 1997 the number of prison inmates has grown by 6,000 above the record level left by Tory home secretary Michael Howard.
No extra criminals were convicted - the courts simply passed longer sentences.
Labour's ten-year Criminal Justice Plan provides for 2,700 new jail places.
However reports suggest that its sentencing policy could actually require over 12,000 extra prison units.
In The Socialist 25 May 2001: