In 1993, then Home Secretary Michael Howard gave a now famous speech to the Conservative Party Conference. In it, he stated that, “Prison works. It ensures that we are protected from murderers, muggers and rapists – and it makes many who are tempted to commit crime think twice.”
Later, in a speech in 2003, Howard stated that “an increase in the number of criminals in prison leads to a large fall in crime”.
This has been the type of thinking behind our justice system for quite some time. The notion that bad people get locked up and, as a result, crime is dealt with. It’s convenient, because it also satisfies the public’s bloodlust for ‘punishment that fits the crime’ and allows politicians to sound tough. It’s also simple, requiring no further thought. Criminal + Prison = Less crime. Easy.
In reality, this assumption is little more than fantasy. Within 10 years of release, 74% of those convicted will reoffend. Over half reoffend within a year. A few years ago, a study demonstrated a link between reoffending rates and high prison population.
As such, prison isn’t working. It is emboldening criminality and, as such, leading to more victims of crime. Furthermore, an increase in the number of criminals in prison leads to a striking increase in reoffending rates.
This week at Stormont, the Committee for Justice met to hear from three people conducting the Youth Justice Review.
Of the many recommendations from the review, the reaction by some committee members to one in particular highlighted the thought trap of ‘tough’ action meaning ‘effective’ action; raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years of age.
Jim Wells, in particular, has issues with the proposal. He was worried about what would happen to those ages outside the recommendation, of whether they would be recruited by unscrupulous gangs seeing the chance of committing crimes using untouchable children and of what would have happened to the killers of James Bulger under this recommendation.
These are legitimate concerns. While it may sound farfetched that criminal gangs use children to commit crime, in reality this is precisely what happens. As John Graham, the review’s head, indicated, however, his concerns on this are ultimately unfounded.
Firstly, regarding the Bulger case, the same thing would happen under these instances as would happen if a 9 year old committed murder now. This should stop Wells’ fears immediately, but Wells was still not convinced. The fact that Northern Ireland hasn’t had a murderer of that age in living memory also didn’t convince him, nor the issue that Wells was edging closer toward legislating based on an outlier.
Wells cited public interest as a reason why this recommendation shouldn’t be implemented, that the public would simply imagine the Bulger murderers being let off the hook and that there’d be an outcry.
Yet it isn’t just Wells that raised objections. The Committee’s chair, Paul Givan, said previously that he actually wanted to see the age lowered, not increased. Laurence Lee, the man who represented the Jon Venables, one of the Bulger killers, said it would send an “awful message” if the age were increased. Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, he felt there would be “anarchy”.
Members of the public have already taken to newspaper websites to lodge their complaints, making clear that the change will absolutely lead to more crime and is clearly insane.
Interestingly, none of the comments seem to ask why a change would be desirable. According to the review, it is important that children are able to put crime behind them, that they are put onto the right path and not have their criminality reinforced through institutions which actually increase the likelihood of reoffending in later life.
So by altering this policy, by increasing the age of criminal responsibility (and by enacting the other recommendations), we would decrease the likelihood of youth reoffending.
The public and many politicians have already made up their minds, however. The proposals don’t fit that easy equation of Criminal + Prison = Less Crime. It seems counter intuitive to them, even though the proposals are likely to decrease reoffending rates. Isn’t that in the public interest?
It’s an important question. What is in the public interest; preventing future crimes and victims or seeing the wrongdoers behind bars and guaranteeing future crime? The public interest must surely be to prevent future crimes, but the public is clearly concerned that ‘justice is served’.
To paraphrase Hugh Grant, what is of interest to the public is not necessarily in the public interest. The public interest must be to reduce crime. Anything else is not representing the public interest but selfishly pandering for votes at a cost of victims.
The age of criminal responsibility in three of the world’s safest countries, Denmark, Iceland and Norway, is 15. In the world’s safest country, New Zealand, the age is 13.
Northern Ireland’s age of criminal responsibility is below international standards. Most European countries have higher ages of criminal responsibility, but also lower crime rates than the UK, which has one of the highest crime rates in Europe.
There is going to need to be a serious conversation at some point as to what ‘justice’ means. Does it mean punishment at the expense of the public’s safety, or does it mean taking criminals and preventing future crime? While the latter option may not be satisfying enough for some in the rabid press or a public baying for blood at their own expense, we have a stark choice. Criminals are going to be let out of prison at some point, do we want them to commit more crime or not?