In this essay I will be talking about crime and its effects on society and the people who live in it, the problems with controlling crime. Furthermore, I will be looking at forms of sentencing in the criminal justice system, problems with the current method of custodial sentencing, including its effects on prisons, alternative methods of sentencing and finally questioning the possibility of a change in the sentencing framework. Feelings about crime are both contradictory and complicated.
Crime is a highly emotive issue for people, particularly for those who have lived in the same area for many years and perceived its fabric being eroded by vandalism, burglary, drug and street crime. Many feel that society is trapped in an irreversible decline, which criminal justice institutions are powerless to stop. These views tend to lead to feelings of anger and bewilderment that translate, at the most immediate level, into a demand for a tougher, harsher response to crime. However, it is also perceived that simply punishing people is not enough.
There is a frustrating feeling amongst the more liberal thinkers, that there has to be a better way of doing things: sentencing has to prevent crime and tackle its causes, otherwise it does no more than take bad people off the street for a while. There has never been a human community without crime. Thousands of specialist academics around the world have tried to put their finger on why some communities generate so much more than others, why some individuals are so criminal, why some victims are so vulnerable.
Some thought that crime was linked to consumption: more goods, so less need to steal. Then they discovered the opposite: more goods, so more opportunity to steal. Then they discovered the opposite again: more goods, so lower prices, so less that is worth stealing. No theory fits: not poverty, or inequality, or maternal deprivation or paternal absence. They all have some impact – big sources and small sources, all constantly shifting in power and in relation to each other. It is like trying to map the wind – infinitely complex.
Crime control is just as complicated. Councils put up streetlights: the night crime falls; but the day crime falls too. Nobody knows why. New York police clamped down on their first generation of crack dealers, imprisoned masses of them, but gun crime soared: the second generation were younger, more impulsive and they had seen what had happened to their older brothers. People carry credit cards instead of cash; mugging falls. They get mobile phones; mugging rises. The police chase around behind them.
Governments hire more police officers to cut crime; the extra officers discover more offences; so recorded crime rises. Crime has risen almost constantly for many decades, and yet the criminal justice system now delivers fewer detections and fewer convictions than it did 15 years ago. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, came under pressure to adopt a 'more lenient' criminal justice strategy that would cut the daily prison population by 1,500 when he published a Home Office report on sentencing in July 2001.
The strategy involved shorter prison sentences and greater use of community punishments, and was one of three options set out by the former senior Home Office civil servant John Halliday in his report. The Halliday report also outlined a 'steady state' option for sentencing which would drive up the prison population by between 3,000 and 6,000 and a 'more severe' package which would require an extra 9,467 prison places at a cost of i?? 650m a year. Mr Halliday said that senior Home Office civil servants believe that should not happen, and that the 'more lenient' option can also have a decisive impact on cutting crime.
"The most intensive and punitive sentences should be reserved for the most serious and persistent offenders. There is a cause for targeting short prison sentences on those offenders who are most resistant to change, and whose offences (taking account of previous convictions) justify a custodial sentence," the report said. It goes further on to say that "A great deal will depend on how sentencers (especially magistrates and district judges) choose, or are led to use, the new short sentences, bearing in mind the scope to use non-custodial sentences.
Greater use to non-custodial sentences is one possibility. " Mr Blunkett welcomed Mr Halliday's proposal of a new "custody-plan" sentence for the 40,000 inmates who serve under 12 months, which would ensure that after release they would have treatment and courses to help prevent them offending again. It would ensure no short-term prisoner left jail without going on some kind of community supervision. Mr Blunkett, though, is believed to be concerned that the "bang them up culture" of the criminal justice system does little to cut re-offending rates.
The Home Office has also said that it would ensure that the most punitive sentences were reserved for the most serious sexual and violent criminals. As mentioned earlier, the "bang them up culture" used by the criminal justice system has done little to curb re-offending rates – this is not to say that prison is unnecessary. But it is unsettling that prison life is such a mystery to society. There seems an assumption among many individuals on the outside that people in prison are inherently different. Prisoners are not individuals, but a collective, with the same crude standards, values and culture – a sub-race almost.
The paradox of imprisonment lies in society's expectations: the community wants retribution, but also rehabilitation. For many, sending people to prison is not enough: they must suffer while there. A few years ago there was a campaign calling for prisons to be made more 'austere'. But the truth that the campaign failed to grasp is that the harsher a prisoner feels himself to have been treated, the less of an obligation he will feel to abide by society's rules. Official figures, from the home office website, speak for themselves; more than half of prisoners re-offend within two years of release.