Muddled about Crime and Punishment

Today the Belfast Telegraph carries a story with the headline: “Fury as young mum jailed for stealing pair of jeans worth £10”.

The article describes the reaction of family and friends of a woman, Alison Hewitt, sentenced to 3 months for theft. Most of their fury is misplaced, but they do make one valid point. I’ll start with their misplaced fury. I want to look at this first to get it out of the way and disabuse Ms Hewitt’s family that any injustice has been done. I do not wish to rub it in, but her misfortune is entirely her own fault.

They described the sentence as “disgusting” and “sick”. It isn’t. She stole. She was caught and punished. There is nothing disgusting or sick about it. If you steal and are caught you can go to jail. The law makes this perfectly clear and therefore it should come as no surprise to a 27 year old woman.

Her husband said: “She didn’t deserve this, we are totally shocked by this, I still can’t take it in. I didn’t go with her to court because she was told to expect community service.”

Sorry, but she did deserve it. If she had received community service that would have been a discretionary leniency, not “what she deserved”. Society simply can’t afford to have thieves doing a sort of criminal “cost/benefit” analysis to determine what is worth stealing weighed against what punishment they think they “deserve”.

The law is very clear: do not take what isn’t yours.

Now, for my “zero-tolerance of crime” views, some will try to call me a reactionary. They will say that I’m just defending “middle-class property rights”. But here’s the thing: Middle-class people recover from crime much more easily. Often they have the right insurance and even when they don’t, can afford to replace things much more quickly. They can afford better security so it doesn’t happen again. Even more to the point, middle-class people can live in better areas where crime is lower. If you have any doubt about this, take a look at which areas have the highest crime levels, courtesy of the police website widget. Crime is something that blights the lives of poor people. The rich soldier on. This is why I do not believe that being “tough on crime” (to use a tabloid phrase) is “reactionary”. The more standards of law enforcement – and, as a consequence, civic morality – drop, the more crime poisons communities.

However, a friend of Ms Hewitt’s stumbles upon an important issue. He says her sentence is unfair “especially when you hear about how some people are in the courts all the time for far worse things and they seem to get off all the time.”

Indeed. He is not wrong. But it is this very attitude that led Ms Hewitt towards crime in the first place. The idea has been put in people’s heads that, increasingly, sentences have become more and more lenient to the point where a thief like Ms Hewitt thinks she can get off with some community service. The outrage isn’t that she went to jail, it is that so many others get away virtually scot-free.

For example, the violent drug-dealing gangster with a list of prior offences I wrote about a few days ago. He was out in 2 years, managed to avoid deportation despite being an illegal immigrant, and was back in his role as “general” of this gang by the time he was arrested for another crime a year later.

Another example is the gay man beaten to death in Trafalgar Square. One of his assailants, the ringleader, had a previous conviction for violent assault. Clearly her punishment in that case taught her no lessons.

In fact, an unsurprising number of crimes are committed by people whose first, and second, and third, convictions led to punishments from which they learned nothing. Too often these punishments are viewed by criminals as temporary inconveniences or occupational hazards. They are not enough to persuade people that crime doesn’t pay.

Now I know what a lot of ‘dithering do-gooders’ will say: They’ll say that the jails are already full and if we got tough on crime and actually gave people meaningful sentences “the overcrowded jails would be even fuller”.

I also know what the ‘flogem and hangem’ lot will say: If jail terms were given more often, and for longer, and jails were more unpleasant places to be, they would serve as a better deterrent. The better the deterrent, the keener people are to avoid them. What’s more, the risk of being sent to jail would be too great for a crook to gamble on being given a harmless “community service” sentence. “Jails are not full because we’re too tough on crime. Jails are full because we’re not tough enough.”

But the truth is likely to be that jail time makes little difference to crime rates either way. This renders the entire “deterrent” debate moot. But that’s certainly not the end of the discussion: what we are left with is punishment. That is not an invalid end in itself, though many argue that retributive justice is wrong. It isn’t. But punishing crime is not the same as reducing crime levels.

What does make a difference is a society’s cultural attitude to crime. And it is here that the reaction to Ms Hewitt’s sentence is most telling.

Why do they think it is “outrageous” that she’s being jailed for theft?

It is because the criminal subculture in which it is okay to steal and unfair to be sent to prison is gaining increasingly mainstream positive affirmation. More than prison policy, this is what need to be changed.