Friday, 13 April 2007

Is a crime free society possible?

Firstly, let's consider the issue of conscience. This is a belief in natural justice. Christians believe in "Heaven and Hell", eastern religions believe in "Karma", atheists believe in "Vibrations"- practically all belief systems have something similar. The idea is that when we make a mistake of judgement, we are held to account by the universe until we put that "mistake" right. The film "Groundhog Day" is a humorous take on this, where a man has to relive the same day over and over, till his day is perfect.
In my opinion, it is this that makes the difference between civilisation and barbarity. The reason that the majority of people would not consider committing a murder is not fear of imprisonment or execution. It is having to live with "blood on hands". Most people would rather have the happiness of innocence than the shame of guilt, even if it meant being less well off in the material sense.
Deep down, I think we all feel this way. In my case, experience of life has taught me this. Were I to meet Bill Gates on the top of a deserted cliff, with a van containing his entire fortune in unmarked bullion, I wouldn't take the opportunity to push him off and bag the loot. Ten years ago, I probably would have done, because of my lack of maturity and spiritual awareness.
I don't believe there's anyone who's truly evil, I've never met such a person. Where "evil" comes from is immaturity and psychosis (delusions). One of the biggest tragedies of mankind is there's relatively few years between being immature and being senile. By the time we've worked out how to use of brains and bodies to their best potential, they are starting to fail. One view that I've seldom heard expressed is the contribution of low life expectancy to poverty (a vicious circle) - the lack of old people to pass on knowledge stunts the intellectual and moral development of the young.
In the developed world, education and the media unfortunately tend to perpetuate a childish outlook, rather than promote an adult one. They tend to push the importance of material wellbeing above a spiritual one. Religion could help here, but the problem is religions try to force their dogmas on the young. In my experience, true faith (humanism included) is something that cannot be taught, but can only be learned by the willing.
The mass media promote jealousy. One of the tabloids' favourite tricks is to launch the career of a celebrity with good publicity, then subsequently destroy it with scandal. The provoking of envy is involved in both the rise and fall- it is seeded by the former and gratified by the latter. When they expose the sex/drug/whatever shame of the rich and famous they are saying "You've got everything- you SHOULD be happy". Of course riches and fame do not make happiness and scandal hit celebrities expose this myth. The two things that do are a high self esteem and a clear conscience.
The mainstream education system, both state and private does a good job with the majority of pupils in the intellectual domain. The vast majority leave school numerate and literate. However, the social development side increasingly plays second fiddle- one problem is it's very hard to measure. You can have exams for maths and science, but not for outlook. It saddens me that there's people leaving even "top" schools, bright, confident but with no real purpose to their existence- and resultingly an attitude which is at times unpleasant.
Another interesting movie with theological overtones is "Bruce Almighty". In one scene, Jim Carrey's character, who has been appointed God for a week, answers everyone's prayers with a "yes", and anarchy ensues. Why? Because, in the words of Morgan Freeman's God character, "people don't know what they want".
These are the questions that needs to be at the heart of educating youngsters. What do they want out of life? And why do they want it? And how will they achieve it? Oddly, neither philosophy or psychology are considered key subjects. This is strange, as these subjects are essential in answering questions about ourselves. If we can't understand ourselves, we can't understand anyone else.
The bottom line is, everybody has a conscience, but we have to learn to listen to it. This means thinking beyond simply what we have been taught.

Another failing of the tabloid media has been the exaggeration of crime, driven by the desire for newsworthy stories. This has the effect of making the public more fearful of crime, leading to deserted streets and people being frightened to tackle antisocial behaviour themselves.

If we want a society that is law abiding the law has to be fair. Unfortunately, in just about every country, the law is rather arbitrary and random. A good example is alcohol being legal and cannabis being illegal. In terms of damage to the user and those around them, these two substances are roughly equivalent. Yet one is available in shops and the use (and especially cultivation) of the other is punishable in many states by imprisonment.
Such anomalies make a mockery of the law. They give people a good excuse to break it. Law-makers seem overly keen on passing controversial laws, where public support is patchy. Around 99% of the population support laws against rape. A lot less would support laws against prostitution. Every police officer working at clamping down on vice is one less working on rape cases. Wouldn't it be better for law enforcement and criminal justice personnel to concentrate all their efforts in stopping acts that practically everybody agrees is a crime. Generally these are murder, physical/sexual assault, harassment, theft/fraud, and related offences.
I believe a solution to making the law fair would be the incorporation of the "law of reciprocation" into constitutional law.
This is, in the words of Jesus (and words of many others to the same effect) "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"
This could be achieved by the following. To achieve a conviction, a court would have to agree that a third party (the first party being the offender and the second the state) was either harmed or subjected to an unacceptable risk of harm by the offender. In certain cases "wildlife and pets" could count as a third party. Any case that did not meet this criteria would be dismissed.
Restricting prosecutions to offences where there is either an actual victim, an intended victim, or a potential victim would radically streamline the criminal justice system. Tackling "victim crime" is where the public want the police and courts. Another advantage of this approach is it is entirely "culture neutral", thus much fairer in a modern multicultural nation.

One problem with authoritarian approaches to policing is actually the same issue that dogs socialist economic policy- that of too much government intervention. The more society relies on the police to keep it crime free, the less it is able to do it itself. There will always be more lawbreakers than police officers, and that being the case, many will escape justice by sheer numerical odds.
If we are to have a low crime society, it is the public that must take the initiative. If every law abiding citizen acts as a law enforcer, then the minority who offend stand a far slimmer chance of succeeding. Again, because at present the law is so unfair, many largely decent people dislike the police- it's not just criminals who refer to police as "the pigs" - and are unwilling to assist them in their work. Try reporting a burglary, and then being busted for smoking pot!
I once left a brand new bicycle in a small town, where everybody knows everybody else, unlocked outside a shop for three days (I'd forgot about the bike and walked home). By the time I'd come back for the bike was still there. By contrast I left a cheap second hand bike padlocked to a wall in a big city. It was gone in 2 hours. The penalty for stealing a bike was exactly the same in both locations.
Where the police and courts need to be used as the "muscle" backing a vigilant public.
Some methods of improving law and order involve restricting human rights, other methods don't. When politicians have the choice between them, I feel it's a shame that they choose the "big brother" approach. Law enforcement is meant to improve human rights, not diminish them. However our leaders make it seem like a choice between freedom and order. Better equipment, civilian support and training for police, for example, doesn't take away anyones freedom. Something that also stands out is lack of intelligence by police and prosecutors when prosecuting some offenders- you often hear about "we had to let him out because of human rights laws" and other similar excuses. It seems some put making an authoritarian political point- wanting more power- before doing the job they're paid to do.

The Islamic "Sharia Law" has widely been panned in the secular west for it's barbaric practises. But one belief that sticks out as sensible is the concept of "blood money". This allows the victim (or their surviving relatives) to pardon the criminal in exchange for a sum of cash. Would it not be a bad idea to give the victim a choice between a criminal punishment and a civil compensation.

There has been a lot of concern about the growing size of the prison population, both in the UK and abroad. The authoritarian reaction to this is to build more prisons. But reading through local newspapers, it seems that around two thirds of people who are sent to prison do not need to be there. By "need to be there", I mean an unacceptable risk to themselves and others. Currently, prison sentences depend largely on the crime, rather than psychiatric need. Jail is hugely expensive, and needs to be used for only those who absolutely need to be there.
To explain what I mean, lets compare prisons to hospitals. When we go to see the doctor with a cold he doesn't say "you have a cold, you are to spend two weeks in hospital. You have a broken back- you are to spend six months in hospital.". Admissions are kept to the bare minimum to keep the costs low, and logistical problems such as cross-infection. How long someone stays in in-patient treatment in conventional clinical care depends entirely on how well they progress. A severe behavioural problem- to the extent that requires locking someone up- is a mental illness, and needs to be treated as such, in the instution best played to deal with that behaviour.
I would advocate the replacement of prisons (under the home office) with secure behaviour units (under the NHS). People would be admitted to AND discharged from such a facility by a judge/magistrate (and "jury" consisting of members of the public) following a full psychiatric report. There would be no minimum or maximum term, it would depend on improvements in behaviour and state of mind.
Offenders in this institution would not be punished- loss of liberty is already distressing enough. They would have the right to do anything legal- that can be safely supervised by the staff- within the confines of the instution, including conjugal visits (alcohol/drugs excepted due to their interference with psychiatric treatment) . Therapy- such as anger management, relaxation and medical treatment would be optional, but would obviously count toward the prisoner's release.

Most of those who regularly commit crime, or commit serious offences, have some deep psychological issues that need addressing. Should this not take place, this behaviour will continue. Before anybody is released back in the comunity, it is these such issues that must be resolved- at least to the extent where their condition is manageable in the community. At present, for example, crack addicts are often released while still hooked. More resources are needed for the treatment of criminals with mental disorders. Of particularly urgency is the diagnosis and treatment of such conditions before a crime is committed. This is hampered by the stigma surrounding mental illness- people (both the patient and those around them) need to know the early signs, and feel able to approach health services and be treated seriously and sympathetically.
As well as mental health issues, life skills need to be taught, such as filling in forms, applying for jobs, socialising etc.
The government in the UK recently brought in a law to make it a legal necessity for those suffering certain types of mental illness to take their prescribed medication. While I am in agreement that those who need it SHOULD take medication, FORCING someone to take medication is counter-productive. If you are paranoid of the government, you'll probably believe they want to poison or labotomise you. If people feel the medication is for their benefit, and using it is their own free choice, they are most likely to take it.

So far we have looked at detention and rehabilitation as separate issues. Punishment is another one. The public expect someone found guilty of a crime to pay their debt to society. Not only that, but "paying back" also eases and strengthens the conscience of the offender. This payback should be just that. I believe the only punishment that is genuinely not "cruel or unusual" is community service. This should come into play after the rehabilitation (and detention where necessary) component is complete. Another advantage of community service is it can be used to build up the offender's CV, making it easier for him to find work.
What I would suggest is the creation of a "probation force" based along the lines of the armed forces, where those who have committed offences have to enrol as "cadets". Cadets would be trained in various skills, and brigades of them used as an anti-dereliction service. It's been noted that if vandalism isn't repaired, it encourages more vandalism, and giving the impression that nobody cares, becomes an attractive area for criminals to operate in. Probation force cadets would be in radio contact with police, and part of their duty would be to report suspicious behaviour. Giving people responsibility is perhaps the best way to make them grow up. Why not make a former burgalar responsible for preventing burgalarlies on his block- the his sentence would depend on his success at preventing crime.
Community service should be avaliable in full time (for the unemployed) and part time (to fit round a job) varieties.

To illustrate how these approaches might work, consider the typical mugger and the sentence he might receive under the present system.

sentenced to five years in prison, paroled after three, released back in to the community

under this new system

sentenced to five years community punishment following rehabilitation
spends one year in rehabilitation in a secure behaviour unit, becoming drug free and mentally stable
spends two years in full time community service helping renovate derelict neighbourhoods. Mental rehabitation continues.
obtains employment using skills gained in training
spends three years, part time, patrolling the streets in a mugging hotspot.

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