Sunday, November 8, 2009

Balancing Harms

Should the punishment inflicted in response to a crime cause less harm to society than the offence itself?
Even the most 'victimless' of crimes does affect the social fabric. Crime is generally a bad thing that society would be better without. But let us take one of the most common crimes, burglary. Some smackhead slips through your kitchen window and has it away with your plasma TV and laptop.
This is going to affect you. How much, and in what ways,  varies greatly but it could have a lasting effect on your life. The comments of a burglary victim would be helpful here.
Now let us assume that yer man gets slung inside for 18 months, should he be caught. This will also have an effect, as you would expect. I'm interested here in the effects which you wouldn't expect.
That imprisonment is broadly uncomfortable is a given, an expected effect. This is the punishment that society assumes comes from being thrown inside. Loss of liberty is a far bigger deal than those who harp on about easy prisons will ever appreciate (see my previous post, Build Your Own Prison).
There are a host of other effects, though, that commonly come from imprisonment. If you had a home, you are likely to lose it. If you have a partner and kids, the relationship may just survive. If it does, your partner will have to spend a fortune she doesn't have travelling around the country visiting you, and sending you money to enable you to phone home. She may well be given abuse by her neighbours and abandoned by her friends. The kids will be bullied and teased in school for having a jailbird dad. There is a good chance that the relationship will fail, and another kid grows up without a father.
Your job, of course, vanishes as you are swallowed by the prison gates. On your release you will face having to declare your conviction to prospective employers. And let’s face it, given the choice between an ex con and not, you’re going to employ the not. Try getting insurance for your car or new home. Insurers are very wary and you will pay through the nose.
These are lifelong effects. You don't just throw a man in prison as punishment; you degrade his future life chances and those of his family.
This will doubtless be dismissed by some with the asinine comment that 'he should have thought about that before...'. Let's raise the intellectual bar a little above that, can we? Because these are not burdens carried by the criminal but also by society. So did we think about this before we inflicted the punishment...? Nope. Due to losing his social capital, yer man is far more likely to reoffend. Because of losing his family, his kids also have a higher chance of becoming criminals. Because of a lack of work, he becomes a lifelong drain on society. These are all costs that the community bears, as a result of the punishment that is paid for. And rather thoughtlessly, don't you think?
Society can't just shrug its shoulders or turn its back. It must look at the known consequences of throwing people in prison, the ones that continue long after the man is released. Only when that level of honesty is reached can we begin to ask and answer the following question.
Which has caused the greater social harm? The original burglary, or our response to it?


  1. Interesting. It is long overdue that we thought about the purpose and effects of imprisonment, rather than using it as a reflex action. What is your proposal?

  2. The downsides you detail apply just as much to those who are convicted but not jailed. They too must declare the conviction although if the offence is minor enough after several years of going straight it disappears. The point still stands though, many of the things you point out are subsequent to conviction, not imprisonment.

    So to address them you need to abolish convictions. I doubt that would work somehow.

  3. Ben, I might be wrong, but you seem to assume the outside world is homogeneous, a single-track existence. So I want to let you know about some peaceful alternative lifestyles that you probably never hear of inside prison.

    This is a network of cooperative companies, which work for positive social change:

    I also recommend this book, which collects analysis and stories of people working in positive alternative ways in the UK:

    Outside of prison, people have opportunities to create alternatives for themselves, and for others. Some people are doing it already. You can join.

  4. I was burgled twice and held at knife point once, within 3 years. Maybe I can give the perspective you're looking for.

    It didn't have any financial implications (insurance is wonderful).

    Each crime does some damage (less to me, a young single male than, say, to an older or more pressured person). It also leads to polarisation and resentment, which is perhaps the most damaging - Daily Mail addicts, when they see crime, will believe they are seeing their worst fears realised and prejudices proven.

    The reasons for victims to be as far removed from the wheels of justice as possible are reinforced every time I think about it!

    However, the picture painted of the damage to society by detention might be overstated; most people committing petty crimes are unlikely to be upstanding citizens, holding down steady 9-5 jobs while bringing up a stable family. They are much more likely to be, as you call them in your first paragraph, 'smackheads.'

    All 3 of my cases remained unsolved, and nobody was ever charged. Whatever the arguments about punishment and detention, that level of 'closure' is actually quite rare. On a separate occasion I saw a car being broken into, stopped a passing police car and watched them pull him out through the window he had just broken. Do I hope he got locked up and the key thrown away? Absolutely not. Prison would probably be totally inappropriate. But I certainly do hope he was convicted, with all the social baggage that brings.

  5. As always interesting but i am so so eager to hear your view on potential solutions here. Vs what we get which is highlighting the already known.

  6. Radio 4 about 15 minutes ago. Jack Straw while replying to criticisms that cautions were being used too much said ...........prison numbers are going up all the time and more places are ready for them.... I can't quote exactly or put it in context as I only really paid attention when I heard this in the background, but I am sure an exact quote could be obtained from bbc iplayer. Same old Daily Mail policies.

  7. how come the doctors who offer advice to prisoners in inside online give web addresses for certain conditions when it is widely known prisoners do not have internet access? can anyone answer

  8. I meant inside times by the way which i read online.

  9. See the thing that stayed with me through your whole description of the scenario was the fact that the perpetrator was a drug addict. To me that is the first place to start. What he did was wrong and of course he needs to 'own' what they did which is something I mentioned in a previous blog but to me the priority is understanding why a person committed a crime and treat them accordingly. To me, addressing the reasons people commit crime is the only way to truly re-set that person's life for the long-term good.

    I had a friend who I actually met because he'd been sent to the 'Riding for the Disabled' centre I went to on a community service order because prison just hadn't made a blind bit of difference to him. He looked like a right handful - 6'4" and covered in tattoos, but you know what? Once he got over his initial hostility, he was one of the sweetest, kindest people I've ever known.

    The fact of the matter was, this punishment worked for him. He helped me a lot when I was studying 'crime and punishment' at school and the more people trusted him the less desire he had to go out and steal because for the first time in his life he had a 'family' who cared for and respected him.

    Did he slip a few times? Of course he did, but every time somebody he loved would be there to kick his arse like the mother/brother/sister/dad he'd never had and eventually he got it together. The bottom line was he appreciated the people who had come to care for and trust him and he wanted to do right by them.

    Last I heard he was happily married and working as a barman.

    For some of the other guys who came to us, it just didn't work but the point is that criminals are people, not some generic label and regardless of how some people think we just treat all of them, that's just not sensible. You have to do what's going to be in the best interests of that individual and society.

  10. Ben, You are a philosopher, that is why some of your logic goes down like a lead balloon. This is England, where philosophy is misunderstood even by the said Philosophers. The subject is our own ticket to our own Eternity, not the rest of mankind's! It was never to mean a business study. I call that 'Blasphemy of the Divine Soul'.

    I feel for you, when you make a point of truth! Then, because 'Truth' has little relationship to the nation that we live in, egos start popping up like barbed wire around a concentration camp. The proof of that, is the rotten political ideals we have been suffering for centuries.

    Put a bunch of characters belonging to a few secret societies into all of the societies main arms, and you then have a totally corrupt sick society, the one that we have now, 'no end to the way-I have a dream'. That dream, was just some words slung together! Lincoln, King, dead before they could finish the job. Job? What job? Most have no idea what to do, or when to do it.

    Obama will not save you, me, or any one us! Climbing to some 'misty mountain' will just result in a chill, or runny nose! Try to rely on that 'gut feeling' a bit more often. Now, that is the real 'You'.

    This slag-off, is no dig at you Ben, in any way. A slow wander up to a distant hill, with an old Cathar Castle on top, with not even a roof, is better than any dream-home with brain-washed morons in residence. The dodgy fag? That would give that castle a roof to think under. At least the air would be less contaminated.

  11. I accept that custodial sentences can have an impact on family life as well as the individual. However, reading my local press it appears that people are not sent to prison without either having lots of previous community based penalties or committing a very serious offence. In addition, many offences appear to have been downgraded. Penalty tickets seem to be handed out for many acts, and violent acts also seem to be less serious in terms of charging by the police. I do not understand if a weapon is used that an offence of common assault, or bodily harm is preferred.

    The Home Office publish the figures of those convicted of offences and this is on their research site. It is not surprising Ben, that many more people have convictions now than those born in 1953 = the document starts with people born then. Not all of these people are unemployed and I think from my reading that there is an Act of Parliament in force which means that convictions become obsolete after a period of time depending on the nature of the offence or the type of employment applying for. Working with children, police, etc means that you may always have to declare past behaviour. Similarly, if you have been convicted of murder or other serious offences these would have to be declared for life? I have interviewed many people over the years and convictions committed during youth were generally ignored unless a weapon was used. Possession of drugs in the past always resulted in a conviction so these too were ignored.

    I read recently that because of prison overcrowding burglary would not result in a prison sentence. I personally would deal harshly with burglars as I have witnessed the appalling results of their actions on victims. Their homes and their well being have been violated and the impact can be far reaching.

    I would also like to know how many people in prison were in full time employment when sentenced as I read about the proportion of prisoners with addiction problems which would make them unemployable. I would also need to know how long a local authority permitted absence from housing before reclaiming tenancy and if mortgage payments were made to families of sentenced prisoners. It is doubly difficult to lose accommodation as well as liberty. The Home Office state that two thirds of prisoners are sentenced to 12 months or less and therefore hopefully their accommodation will be safe. Their jobs would not be. However, I still believe that many people are forgiving of misdemeanours and will give people a chance.

    As to relationships breaking down - I do not know about this aspect as I feel that it is too complex to blame a prison sentence alone. I am a forgiving person - everyone makes a mistake. I would be more worried about the break down in trust and would be questioning why I did not know what was going on - my partner was being dishonest etc etc. The period of imprisonment would not end my relationship - rather the dishonesty and inconsideration beforehand would.
    However, as a society we may puinish the offender and as a last resort send him or her to prison. We do however, support their family whilst they are in prison. I also believe that financial help for travelling to visit is available. People cannot commit offences with impunity. It is right that we do not lock up people unless it is necessary and every other option has been considered. A reminder than many communities are ravaged by crime and they need respite from persistent offenders.
    In all I think we do our best. I also must add that those of us who have worked hard for our TV's are the victims - not those who committed the act.

  12. Re families of prisoners:

    Possibly illuminating re points raised above. I admit I haven't yet read all 98 pages...