Tough on crime, even tougher on crime

The impact of crime and criminal justice policy on the forthcoming General Election will be interesting to observe, writes Roger Hopkins Burke.

To date this policy area seems to have taken a back seat well down the political agenda, behind the economic deficit (highly understandable because of the enormity of the problem) immigration and migration, security and defence, the costs of welfare and the now traditional concerns about the NHS and will it, or will it not, be sold off.

Interestingly, crime was of only marginal concern to electioneers throughout much of the twentieth century. It was widely-recognised that crime was the product of either individual psychological or biological pathologies, or alternatively was committed by those from disadvantaged backgrounds with limited access to good quality legitimate opportunities. It was the Conservatives – and in particular their charismatic leader Margaret Thatcher – who made crime a serious electoral issue in the May 1979 General Election campaign.

Influenced by ‘right realist’ criminology in the USA, inspired by Harvard Professor James Q Wilson, who had been appointed by President Ronald Reagan, as his special advisor on crime, crime policy was now pushed to the top of the agenda. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that this was the issue which won the election for the Conservatives. It was now recognised that much crime – in particular predatory street crimes such as burglary and robbery which impacts so greatly on the consciousness of ordinary people – was not a case of latter day Robin Hood’s stealing from the rich but more a case of poor people stealing from others in their own communities. The intention to take a tough line with these offenders was subsequently well-received by many electors in working class communities who had never previously voted Conservative.

The new policy agenda involved a return to influential nineteenth century thinking which proposed that engaging in criminality was simply a matter of personal choice. People thus choose to engage in criminal acts in the same way that they choose any other course of action. They will rationally choose criminal behaviour if the rewards available exceed the likelihood of getting caught and being seriously punished. The solution to the crime problem was therefore straightforward. Take a tough line, catch more offenders and ensure that they receive significant punishment. In that way choosing to commit crime would be an irrational choice to make and many would stop making such choices.

From that time onwards taking a tough approach to dealing with crime became orthodoxy and certainly became what the public expected from a political party. The Conservatives were clearly prepared to be that ‘tough on crime’ party while others appeared to be soft on the issue in comparison, being unprepared to match their rhetoric and presumably if given the chance by the voters, match their willingness to take action.

All of this was to nevertheless change in the mid-1990s. A group of radical criminologists in the UK had come to recognise the need to address the populist Conservative crime control agenda. These ‘left realists’ recognised the need to ‘take crime seriously’ and accepted that criminals should take responsibility for their crimes, but at the same time observed that it was important to have a ‘balanced intervention’ and address the social context which made criminal behaviour a rational choice for many (often young) people from seriously disadvantaged backgrounds.

It was Tony Blair when shadow home secretary in 1994 that popularised the left realist agenda with what was to become his familiar axiom, ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’, which was to underpin the crime policy strategy of his subsequent governments. Not just did New Labour now match Conservative crime control rhetoric but they came to beat them at their own game, to the extent that they were now perceived by the electorate to be the toughest game in town. Backed up by policies which saw the biggest prison building programme in this country’s history and a ready willingness to fill them with an ever growing prisoner population, New Labour could be seen to be ‘tough on crime, even tougher on crime’. This was the new orthodoxy. Being soft on crime would now be political suicide to any party proposing taking such a line.

In the aftermath of the General Election in 2010, the Minister of Justice, Ken Clarke, sought to reduce the expensive prison population as part of cutting the huge financial deficit facing the country, but this strategy was scuppered by the riots that occurred in August 2011 and popular demands for a rigorous intervention against those responsible. Ken Clarke was replaced not long afterwards and criminal justice business returned to normal.

At the time of writing there seems to be no willingness by any of the major political parties to retreat from the ‘get tough’ crime policy orthodoxy. It will be interesting to see how things develop during the next few weeks.

Roger Hopkins Burke
Principal Lecturer in Criminology
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University

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