So why not just throw them in jail? (Daily Mail)

July 14, 2008 01:00

I have a piece in today's Daily Mail on knife crime and the Home Secretary's plans. Here's an extract:

...Yesterday we learned from the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, that the full power of the government and the criminal justice system will be deployed to...rely on offenders' sense of decency, and assume that when they are made to see the consequences of their actions they will undergo a magical conversion and realise the error of their ways.

If the spate of knife crimes were not so serious you would have to laugh. The official reaction is, in a word, pathetic.

Asking teenagers nicely to stop might be polite, but as any sane person knows by now, it is pointless pleading. Just as it is no good making empty threats.

The missing link in knife crime - and across the criminal justice system - is the concept of punishment. The only way to deal with knife crime is to punish those directly responsible in a clear message which will deter others from falling into the teen-gang cycle of violence and retribution that so blights many inner-city areas.

To most people, that must seem obvious. But - as yesterday's announcement shows - it is viewed as outrageous among those who run our criminal justice system. Why? Because punishment has itself become a dirty word. Instead, any conceivable alternative is used.

Guidelines for magistrates say that those caught in possession of a 'bladed article' or offensive weapon can simply be given a fine or community order if the weapon is not used 'to threaten or cause fear'. So in 2006, just nine of the 6,314 people convicted of carrying a knife were handed down a maximum sentence. What sort of deterrent is that?

Last week, David Cameron demanded that anyone convicted of carrying a knife should be sent to prison. He is right. Only when we start to show teenagers that carrying a knife, let alone using one, is viewed as a major crime which will attract a severe punishment, will there be any hope of stemming the tide.

We simply cannot afford to let the status quo continue because, whichever way you look at them, the figures are truly shocking. Almost 14,000 people a year have become victims of knife attacks in Britain.

Over the past decade, the number of convictions for carrying a knife has almost doubled - from 3,360 in 1997 to 6,314 in 2006. Yet even these figures massively underestimate the scale of the problem, since they fail to record the vast majority of those caught carrying knives who are simply let off with a caution.

Indeed, the spread of cautions is perhaps the main problem in dealing with knives; it is a cancer which is rotting the entire criminal justice system, with the police actually given incentives to hand out cautions instead of taking things further.

The system works like this: if a suspect admits an offence, the police can administer a caution. They do so with astonishing frequency. Last year, some 300,000 offenders were let off with a caution - many for knife offences.

Thus knife crime - with its lethal consequences - is treated as no worse than shoplifting or any other minor offence. Even those who are convicted are treated leniently, because the criminal justice elite no longer believe in punishment, let alone prison, as an appropriate response.

They act, instead, as if they were a branch of social services - with all the warped views which have infected that profession.

Even when offenders do get to court, judges simply refuse to accept that prison is appropriate - despite all the evidence showing that, as Michael Howard famously put it when he was Home Secretary, prison works.

Organisations such as the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders feed off and push this anti-prison, antipunishment dogma, rejecting the idea that criminals are responsible for their own behaviour.

Only last month, plans were announced to keep even more young criminals out of prison. The Home Office was reported as recommending that, because teenage reoffending rates have remained largely unchanged since 1997, responsibility and funding for tackling youth crime should be handed to new, local-authority-run ' children's trusts'.

Yes, it is true - as the bien pensants love to point out - that Britain already imprisons a higher percentage of its population than many countries. But this is a meaningless statistic, since it takes no account of the high proportion of the UK population who commit crimes. In fact, by comparison with other EU nations, Britain actually has a very low imprisonment rate.

Comparing the number of prisoners with the numbers of recorded crimes, the figure for England and Wales was just 12.4 while the European average was 17.5.

To put it another way, if we imprisoned offenders at the EU average rate, there would be 113,150 prisoners in British jails rather than current total of 80,000. Indeed, if we imprisoned offenders at the same rate as (socialist) Spain, our prison population would be a staggering 369,000.

Why does this matter? Because there is a direct correlation between high imprisonment rates and low crime rates - in those countries which are not afraid to jail offenders, the crime rate is consequently low. We come back to that old mantra: prison works.

The tragedy of knife crime is that, as well as the individual tragedies, we know how to reduce it. The evidence is clear. And yet all the Home Secretary can offer as a response is to rely on offenders' good nature. It is a disgrace.

July 14, 2008 01:00

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