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Criminal intent? – New Labour’s justice policy

This article is over 15 years, 1 months old
As home secretary John Reid argues that he wants to "move away from the traditional view that justice has to involve going to court", Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, speaks to Socialist Worker about Ne
Issue 2029

John Reid’s comments are very much part of the general trajectory of the government’s thinking and policy.

If you think of the broad sweep of criminal justice related policies since the Second World War, we had a period up to the end of the 1970s where there was a general consensus. This was about trying to help rehabilitate people back into society.

Then you had a massive disruption—the collapse of the Keynesian state, the rise of Thatcherism and the major punch-up between the political parties over law and order.

From the early 1990s we had an emergence of a new hardline consensus in which Michael Howard and Tony Blair were the two leading characters. You see a shift in Labour Party policy.

It was the 1992 election that was formative for New Labour, even though they had been moving in that direction for some time. The 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, which introduced Anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos), was a pivotal moment in law and order policy.

It was not just about crime. The focus of New Labour is more punitive and controlling across a range of social policy.

There is the retraction of the welfare state and a targeting of individuals who are deemed to be problematic. New Labour has given up on any major social transformations.

We have the neoliberal state and the challenge of controlling problem populations. One of the ways you do this is getting people off welfare and into low paid jobs and another is to pick them up and bang them up in prison for longer and longer periods.

I was at a meeting a few weeks ago where Phil Wheatley, the director general of the prison service, was asked why are there so many more people in prison.

He said, “That’s simple, the courts are sending more people to prison.” At one level that is clearly true—people get sent to prisons because they commit a crime.

But ultimately these are all political questions because if you have a thing called “crime” the practical questions are how you respond to that and what kind of structures you create to manage and resolve those problems.

The prison, probation and broader criminal justice processes are certainly a structure for trying to resolve and deal with these problems, although arguably not a very good one.

There is a lot of concern that the debate about crime and how you deal with crime has become overpoliticised. But it is fundamentally a political question.

I think we need a vigorous debate in this country—in which politicians are a part but not the whole of the debate—about the kinds of things we think in society are “bad” and what we think are the best ways of dealing with them.

I don’t think this kind of debate is being had and I don’t think the current political parties are very keen on fostering such a debate as some of the answers they get may not be conducive to their political programmes.

I don’t think that there is any quick fix. We had a prison population as recently as the late 1980s that was around half of what we currently have.

There is a long term process involved in turning that around. This could start with questions like, “What does a good society look like? What are the responsibilities of the state to the citizens? What can we reasonably expect to have as a right and how can we construct systems to deal with problems that emerge?”

The criminal justice system may well be part of the process, but I think it should be a much smaller part of a much bigger question which is to do with society, economics and policy.

There are two particular areas of policy that stand out. One is the rising rate of poverty and inequality, especially since the mid to late 1970s.

The Crime and Society Foundation published an essay last year looking at the rising homicide rate.

One of the things that you find is that the risk of being murdered if you are in the richest 10 percent of the population fell throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

If you are in the bottom 10 percent of the population, your risk of being murdered went up six-fold.

So there is a very clear link between socio-economic position and the risk of victimisation. This is important because one of the problems with the political debate in recent years has been the focus on people’s socio-economic position and their propensity to commit crime.

If you go down that route you can end up with a reactionary political agenda. Focusing on peoples’ risks and vulnerabilities based on socio-economic place opens up a potentially more interesting and important debate about how we as a society can underpin the safety of our fellow citizens.

The other crucial area is to do with male power and misogyny. If you ask young men when they think it is appropriate to hit a woman or force her to have sex, many men can give a reason why they think it would be appropriate to do either or both of those things.

One of the things you find from survey data is that the greater the economic power that a woman has the less likely she is to be a victim of forms of crime and criminality.

These issues are all interrelated. Although you are not going solve male violence simply by tackling poverty and inequality, it will certainly help.

For more information go to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies website

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