“Tough on crime” a waste of time – let’s be effective instead

Jailing offenders isn’t the only option available to courts. Publik16/Flickr
Violent crime represents a tragedy on many different levels. After working in prisons for a few years I was convinced, as I think most of us would be, not only about the limitations of our response to crime but also how the tragedy of crime adds to the misery of those least able to cope with life.

Enthusiasm for using imprisonment as a response to crime is most likely sustained through the comforting, but false, belief that imprisonment is effective in deterring crime.

In a few cases it might be but mainly it is not. To understand why it is not, we need to have broader understanding of context in which most violent crime is committed.

It is a simple and relevant fact that most victims come from the same groups in the community as the offenders. In many cases they are directly related to them. This reflects the unplanned and expressive nature of most violent crimes.

A recent analysis of homicide in Australia reveals that most homicide victims were in a close relationship with the killer .

Crime is especially tragic in that it reflects the hurt, wounded and dysfunctional attempts by some to grasp for a sense of power.

The people they hurt in this doomed quest for power are people who are least likely to have the resources and capabilities to resist or recover from the violence.

When we look across all the various types of violent crime we see a pattern with violent offenders usually becoming accustomed to using violence early in their lives.

The most widespread and devastating form of violent crime is the often unspoken, unrecognized and unreported forms of family violence – almost all committed by men, sometimes against their partners and sometimes against the children who are unlucky enough to be placed in their care.

In the study we did into young people’s experience of domestic violence we found that one in four young Australians had witnessed domestic violence in their home .

A recent Australian study found that one in three women and one in six men have experienced some form of sexual abuse as a child. A recent review of prisoners’ health published in the Lancet provides detail on the much higher rates of mental illness, including post traumatic stress disorder, evident in prisoner populations compared to the general population.

Such findings provide further support for the widely endorsed theory of the cycle of violence.

But how does being hurt and traumatized lead to psychological distress which is then played out in all kinds of harming behaviours – sometimes self harm and sometimes harming others?

Part of the answer is that these people are hurting and attempt to redeem their sense of importance through hurting another.

It comes back to a view of the world that sees dominance and force as being signs of real power. A belief that unfortunately we see mirrored in the way we respond to crime.

The underlying belief is that expressive uses of force can redeem us from feelings of worthlessness, impotence and despair. It is a desperate and futile search for power and control.

Part of the reason why it affects the poor and the marginalized more is because feelings of powerlessness combine with a lack of resources to express power in other ways.

For example in the study we did in the mid-90s into the extent of domestic violence in Western Australia we found domestic violence is much more common in poorer areas than in richer areas. And it is much more common in Aboriginal communities. We found that an Aboriginal woman in this State was 45 times more likely to be the victim of domestic violence than a non aboriginal woman .

Against this well known picture of the tragedy of crime how can we intervene in a truly productive way?

Perhaps the hardest, but also the most relevant point to grasp, is that the justice system provides a very limited remedy to this kind of widespread problem. And this is not a criticism of the system but rather a simple appraisal of its place in the scheme of things.

There are three reasons for this: First, the vast majority of crime does not even come to the attention of the criminal justice system.

Second, of that crime that does come to the attention of the authorities only a small proportion of offenders are caught and convicted.

Third, those that are caught and convicted are usually well advanced in their criminal career so that the intervention of the courts can do little to change things.

A large part of the problem in developing more effective responses to crime is that people are fixated on imprisonment – it eats up enormous amounts of the budget that we could be using to prevent crime but it remains the popular solution. We need to understand why, and how, we can re-invest some of the money we spend on warehousing criminals into preventing crime.

Punishment will always be needed as a last resort but we are likely to get so much more out of it if it is reserved, as in the drug court model. In this case offenders are encouraged to seek treatment, rather than punished for their crimes.

We also need to be cautious in our response to crime that we don’t actually cause more harm than good. This was illustrated a few years ago with the widespread adoption of a policy that looked good and was enthusiastically endorsed.

It was thought that routinely arresting offenders in all cases of domestic violence this would undoubtedly work to deter them from committing further assaults. Well it did – but only in those cases where the offender had something to lose – like a job, reputation or status in the community. For the poorest men without jobs and so forth the arrest operated like a red rag to a bull and in fact the violence escalated.

We clearly need to approach the prevention of violence strategically, first like any good doctor, to do no greater harm, and then, to intervene as intelligently as possible to minimize harm.

The good money is on a whole raft of early intervention programs aimed at helping where it is most needed– such as in disadvantaged areas with mums who are least able to cope.

The “do no greater harm” principle is particularly important where governments are willing to throw aside good practices developed over many decades, if not centuries, in an effort to show that they are “tough on crime”.

This is partly a product of the “dumbing down’ of public debates on crime much of which can be attributed to the power and the dynamics of the tabloid media.

The tabloid media depend on heightening the emotional and sensational aspects of crime whilst at the same time simplifying positions into categories like "tough on crime” or “soft on crime”. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have a category called “effective on crime”.

It is important to note that the media have no ultimate responsibility to the public, they are a business and they are accountable not to the public or the government but to their shareholders.

It follows that they will seek to produce news that grabs attention. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to engage at the emotional level.

The political and the media treatments of crime converge in to a focus on emotional reactions - either responding to the public emotions of fear and anger, creating them or exploiting them. It is clearly possible, and often successful politically, to reduce crime debates to this level.

And while there are many things we can do to engender a considered public debate on this matter there is no substitute for inspired and strong political leadership. This leadership should develop a new dialogue with the public about our response to crime. There is evidence that this could break a deadlock that stymies progress in this area.

There are now a number of studies which demonstrate that when the public are seriously engaged and given the opportunity to have access to the basic facts concerning our choices in this area they move towards making decisions on the basis of what works to prevent crime.

They routinely endorse alternatives to imprisonment and want public money spent in the most effective way to prevent crime. In short they are rational and reasonable decision makers.

This should not be surprising as all that has happened is that we have shifted the parameters of the discussion from the kind of banter you might hear in a pub to the sober environment of the jury room. We have essentially switched the discussion from the emotional to the rational.

Some might say, that our policies in this area should be informed by our outrage about crime. However, by making the choice to focus on the effectiveness of our responses to crime, we are willing to listen to our emotions, but not be overwhelmed by them.

We want to stay focused on what will genuinely reduce the most harm, not engage in gratifying displays of force which, just like the violent man, make us feel more powerful.

If we recognize the real tragedy of crime, we become more concerned about those directly affected by it, and choose at every point, to focus on what reduces suffering, not, what feels good. We do this, not because we don’t care about the victims of crime but rather precisely because we do.

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