By Sofie Buckland
To its bourgeois defenders the criminal justice system - courts, prisons, probation service - serves a number of purposes. First it is there to try and prevent crime. Prison incarceration, the longer the better for some, is meant to act as an example and a deterrent to other would-be criminals. Punishment is also meant to bring "justice" to the victims of crime. Or perhaps, as the tabloid headliner writers who call for the judicial murder of paedophiles would have it, punishment is also about exacting revenge. To others, more liberal in opinion perhaps, prison is a last resort, the final stop in a long line of measures aimed at preventing crime. But, for socialists, all of these explanations overlook a lot of the reality about why people commit crime, and the effectiveness and purpose of their punishment.
Over half the prison population of both genders have been found guilty of acquisitive crimes such as burglary or handling stolen goods. So economic factors - however you analyse these - are a crucial element of the picture. The fact is the vast majority of the prison population are working class men, with disproportionate representation of minority ethnic groups.
Violent offenders are thought to make up only a very small percentage of the current 75,000 prison population. Imprisoning people therefore has very little to do with guaranteeing the safety of society.
Nor does prison combat the root causes of crime - the incidence of which goes up year on year.
In fact there has been, in recent times, a lot of bourgeois ideological support for the notion that a certain class of people are programmed to be criminal, crime is inevitable and therefore there is little that can be done to tackle the roots of crime.
These arguments are racist and biologically determinist and have come from sociologists such as Charles Murray who wrote The Bell Curve back in 1994. His argument is that an "underclass" of mentally subnormal and pathologically criminal human beings exists. The average offender in prison comes from a working-class background because working-class people commit the most socially damaging crime, and further, this is due to genetic inferiority. Murray suggested, in an article for The Sunday Times, that Britain needs to reduce "incentives" for working class people to have children - such as child benefit. Otherwise this "underclass" will propagate their criminal genes and takie over Britain.
Even in the pages of less right-wing newspapers there has been consternation at the growing birth rate divide between the middle and working classes. The establishment may no longer look to "science" to provide the exact face size and shape of the "criminal" type, as in the Victorian era, but biological explanations for crime are still present under the guise of concern for social decline.
All of these explanations assume the concept of meritocracy. The poor stay poor because they haven't tried hard enough; criminal families have criminal children because they share genes. Poverty and deprivation have nothing to do with a poor environment, poor education and economic hardship. Of course, this is nonsense. A quick look at statistics on growing inequality and the steep decline in social mobility tells you this. A cursory knowledge of the vast differences in environmental experience between those brought up in middle class and working class areas tells you more.
Socialists should avoid falling into the trap of some Marxist sociologists who over-romanticise all crime as a blow against an unjust system. Working-class offenders often cause the most damage and fear of crime in working-class communities. On the other hand we oppose biologically determinist explanations of crime. If working class people commit more crime than the middle class, it has a lot to do with a relative lack of opportunity, alienation from social success, relative and absolute material deprivation.
But do working-class people really commit most crime? Though official crime statistics and prison population statistics suggest this is the case, these are better indicators of police procedure and priorities than of actual levels of crime committed. Everyone commits crime, from speeding to drug use, not wearing a seatbelt to fare-dodging, software piracy to copyright infringement. I doubt there is anyone reading this article who has not committed a crime of some sort in the last month.
Why don't crime statistics reflect the diversity of the population, instead of indicating the typical criminal as a young working-class male? Because the state can decide which crimes police ought to concentrate on, and which constitute the most serious offences. No prizes for guessing which comes with the higher penalty, putting the lives of those around you at risk by speeding... or shoplifting.
Street crime is consistently targeted by the police due to its high visibility. And the police "crack down" on their idea of a typical criminal (the working class, and often black, young man), leading to more arrests from this group, and a further reflection of them as the most criminal in statistics. It is a vicious circle of procedures following statistics following procedures.
So the evidence shows a criminal justice system biased against those at the bottom of the social heap.
Further evidence of that "injustice" comes from the rising amount of women in prison. Recent years have seen the prison population of women rise by 170% (the figure is 50% for men), despite the amount and seriousness of women's crime barely increasing. Women often bear the brunt of economic hardship. The two most common "female" crimes are shoplifting and handling stolen goods.
The real sign that prevention of crime is being ignored in favour of locking people up? The consequences for the children of these women. Women prisoners are much more likely to be the sole carer for children than men; and prison often results in the loss of a house and children being taken into care. Why are alternative methods of punishment, and dare we say rehabilitation, not found, so that children can stay with their mothers and in their own homes? Very few women prisoners pose a risk to society. And this injustice (to children) leads directly to crime: 25% of offenders were in care as children.
But, as I have explained, the criminal justice system is not about helping families and communities out of the cycle of crime. It is about extracting the maximum amount of suffering from those whose crimes happen to be the sort the state has decided are most punishment-worthy.
Both male and female offenders who would previously have been given community sentences are, under New Labour, being imprisoned; sentences are getting longer. There has been no corresponding evidence that incidence or seriousness of crime is growing. Rising from 42,000 to 75,000 between 1993 and 2005, Britain's rate of imprisonment outstrips Saudi Arabia, China and Myanmar (Burma). It is the highest rate in Western Europe.
Mass media focus on a few serious crimes, creating the impression of Britain in decline, with a rising tide of "yobs" and "hoodies" ready to happy-slap anyone who gets in their way. Politicians pander to the Daily Mail to win votes, acting "tough on crime" by competing to come up with the harshest punishments for those already excluded from mainstream society. Prison is now backed up by a raft of measures intended to tackle anti-social behaviour - which the Government intends to extend under its third term so-called "respect" agenda. People who break the terms of an anti-social behaviour order (which can be applied without due process) can end up in prison.
But the crackdown approach isn't working. Rates of re-offending are extremely high - an estimated 90% of shoplifters re-offend within two years of release. Most people do not go into prison as hardened criminals needing to be either contained or cured; they go into prison as people who have a great deal of stress, disappointment and difficulty in their lives - such as homelessness, unemployment, and, most importantly of all, a history of drug abuse. Prison often has the effect of exacerbating rather than relieving these issues.
The drug issue is particularly pertinent. It is estimated that 50% of acquisitive crime is carried out to fund drug habits. There are over 100,000 "problematic" users in the UK. The main victims of what is a epidemic are youth. Young people who live in the most ghettoised and run-down parts of Britain's, who have little hope of getting better than a very low paid job, who see image of other people "making it" and make money, somewhere else in their town, somewhere else in Britain, anywhere, but where they are.
Overcrowded prison systems are not providing anything like adequate rehab services for users, and many prisoners leave the system with worse habits than they came in with. The prison environment of random drug testing leads to heroin use, as it out of the body's system in around 72 hours, whereas cannabis can remain in the body for up to 28 days. Sending ex-offenders back to the streets with drug habits that cost hundreds of pounds a week to feed is not an effective strategy to reduce crime.
Prison doesn't work and time and again successive governments have been forced to face up to this. The proposed alternatives by this government look little better. Last year, Home Office minister Hazel Blears called for the wearing of American-style orange jumpsuits by young offenders on community service, the idea being that the highly visible and easily identifiable outfit would shame them out of committing further crimes. ASBOs as I have said are not going to be a replacement for prison. They are also not a good replacement for the more expensive social solutions to "anti-social behaviour" in young people, such as better facilities for kids and parents.
These policies are not an alternative to the idea that punishment, rather than improving lives, is the goal of the criminal justice system. Shaming young offenders doesn't reintegrate them into communities, or reduce unemployment or drug use. Slapping ASBOs on cheeky kids doesn't teach them "respect", it further alienates them from mainstream society. Neither of these schemes act as a deterrent to serious crime, when the crimes most commonly ending in imprisonment are committed not by rational economic agents trying to boost their personal wealth, who can be stopped when the costs outweigh the rewards, but by desperate drug addicts.
The high prison population is not a short-lived trend. Some have predicted that as schemes aimed at reducing social inequality and deprivation begin to have an effect the prison population will fall. But how serious is the government at reducing social inequality? Tax credits and other measures have been aimed a reducing the poverty of some working-class families. Some absolute poverty may have been alieveated. On the other hand inequality of wealth in society and relative poverty have grown under New Labour. All the evidence is that it is relative poverty that is key to the kind of social deprivation that leads to crime.
If Labour is serious about alternatives to prison, why is it building so many new prisons? Alternative methods of rehabilitation or rehabilitation at all are not high on the government's agenda. And it is a prison system that is becoming increasingly privatised. It is an overcrowded system which leads to increased mental illness and self-harm amongst prisoners.
Companies such as GSL, who run the Leeds Altcourse Prison, are profiting from a literally captive cheap labour source. In prisons there are no unions, no holidays, no minimum wage rates, no sick pay. Is it too much to say that this hugely exploitable workforce is an incentive behind the fixation on prison as "rehabilitation", instead of alternatives that might actually cut crime?
Is there a more explicitly capitalist motive hiding behind cutting prison education budgets, and claiming that compelling prisoners to work "empowers" them?
When Rye Hill prisoners can be paid as little as £5 per week and the company in charge, Summit Media, receive up to £50,000 for two weeks work, it is difficultto argue we do not have a prison-industrial complex, similar to that of the USA. Prison is no longer just a method of social control but a way of corralling a surplus population that will contribute little as consumers, but will help to create a profit.
Seen in light of this information, the media outcries make sense; fear is a great selling point for public support of incarceration. Most social services cut against the logic of capitalism; education, healthcare and social support in deprived areas do not generate profits. These services are crumbling whilst money is spent on prisons and policing. Repressing the working class and profiting from their enforced prison labour is far more efficient in capitalist terms than preventing social problems with better public services.