Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Cutting the cost of crime

Round our way the crime wave continues unabated. Neighbours have just had a garden statue nicked, even though it was chained down and, scarily, they were at home at the time. The police response was ‘yeah well, we can’t send anyone out, but we’ll send you a form for the insurance.’

This latest incident joins the burgeoning neighbourhood catalogue of muggings, burglaries, car-jackings, assaulted teenage children, and even a probable gangland murder. None of which seem to have been solved by the elusive officers of law enforcement, even though they have just found time to book my father-in-law for driving at six mph over the speed limit- twice in the same day.

Not that our neighbourhood is anything special- it’s leafy Surrey rather than Miami Vice. In fact the Home Office statistics say there are only 18 recorded crimes per thousand population compared to a national average of 28. God knows what it’s like living in the inner cities.

The government’s line of course is that the crime wave is a figment of our imaginations. They bang on about the British Crime Survey, which purports to show that crime has dropped to the lowest level since the Garden of Eden. What they don’t emphasise is that the BCS is effectively an opinion poll, based on interviews with a sample of punters, sifted, tweaked and massaged with all the artistry we’ve come to associate with sensitive government statistics. These are not hard numbers, and the results conflict with both police recorded crime statistics and the evidence of our own eyes.

What to do? Well, unless the late lamented Inspector Morse is going to return, we should lay aside any thought that the police will solve more crime- ie that somehow the clear-up rate can be increased from its present abysmal level of under a quarter. It may be a convenient fantasy for our mushy politicians, but the chance of criminals getting caught is going to remain minimal.

Which means we must fall back on the only other tools we have available: prevention and deterrence.

In terms of prevention, we’d all like to see some zero-tolerance policing…but not just for people driving a bit fast, or eating an apple at the wheel. Technology can help too, hence the growth in the alarm/CCTV industry. But every time we make it harder to steal unattended property, we make it more likely that thieves will be driven to snatch things from us while we are actually there- muggings, car-jackings, and breaking in while we’re asleep.

Which is why deterrence is so important. We don’t need the Home Office to spend another fortune explaining why peaceable householders really shouldn’t need more freedom to bash intruders- we need a law that says ‘if-you-break-into-my-house-buddy-boy-all-bets-are-off’.

And we also need much more severe penalties for the small number of criminals who actually do get caught. The message has to be ‘yes, you can probably get away with a life of crime, but you need to think very carefully because if you do get caught you are going to be locked up for a very long time in some very uncomfortable conditions.’ It goes without saying that we need our own ‘three strikes’ arrangement to keep habitual offenders well away from the rest of us. And we should forget all that nonsense about rehabilitation- I'd rather be safe.

Unfortunately, this is not the government’s view. In ‘Confident Communities in a Secure Britain’, they say:

“We intend to introduce a new requirement for the Sentencing Guidelines Council to have regard to overall custodial and community capacity when producing its guidelines. This combination of reforms aims to stabilise the prison population at 80,000 by 2008”

What this means in plain English, is that once we have filled up the arbitrary 80,000 prison places, the courts will only be able to pass non-custodial sentences. Which from the perspective of us out here is completely hopeless.

How much would more prisons cost? Using present arrangements probably more than it should- every couple of dozen prisoners costs a staggering million a year, so an extra 10,000 would cost £400 million.

But I’m sure citizens of goodwill could come up with more cost effective arrangements. Personally I go along with my Dad, who suggests doing a cut price deal with Russia- they’ve got plenty of surplus prison accommodation, and they could use some foreign currency earnings and prison warder jobs.

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