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Taking crime seriously: From criminal justice to social justice

Richard Garside, Acting Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and Chair of the Crime and Society Foundation

This is a copy of a speech given at the Crime and Society Foundation fringe meeting at the Compass 'The Shape of things to come' Conference, London, June 17, 2006

In the short time that I have this afternoon I am going to talk about two possible approaches for Labour on crime over the coming years.

The first of these two approaches is the criminal justice approach. It has been the default approach for Labour ever since it came to power in 1997. It seems likely to dominate policy making for some time to come.

The criminal justice approach assumes that the problem of crime is largely a problem for the criminal justice agencies. Give them the right powers, organise them in the right way, resource them adequately and the police, the prosecuting authorities and the courts, the prison and probation services will effectively manage and control crime. It involves an obsession with bureaucratic structures and day-to-day processes. With tweaking and fiddling.

It is an approach to crime expressed very clearly by the Prime Minister in a seminar at Downing Street a couple of weeks ago. There were only two questions worth asking, he said. First, is it possible for the criminal justice system to deal effectively with crime? Second, how far are we prepared to go to get such a system? We will hear more about this approach in a speech Mr Blair is due to give in Bristol next week.

The second possible approach to crime is the social justice approach. It challenges the assumption that crime is largely a problem for the criminal justice agencies. It places crime and related harms in the broader social and economic context, rather than seeing them merely as breaches of social norms and the laws of the land. It asks how social and economic arrangements might influence the levels of crime and harm, not how a tooled up criminal justice system might crack down.

It is an approach that Labour has hinted at. The government, after all, wants to be tough on the causes of crime. But in office it has largely ignored the implications of this commitment, pursuing instead tough on crime policies that have little impact on the underlying levels of crime and related harms.

I want to put some flesh on the bones of this argument by talking about some crimes and related harms at opposite ends of the spectrum of seriousness: homicide and anti-social behaviour.

Last year between 900 and 1,000 people were victims of homicide in Britain. That is some two to three people each day. Compare this with some significant dates in our recent past.

In 1979, the year that the country rejected a battered Labour government for Mrs Thatcher's Conservatives, just over 600 people in Britain were victims of homicide. In 1997, when John Major's exhausted Conservatives were hammered in the polls by New Labour, just over 700 people in Britain were victims of homicide. Today it is close to 1,000.

Despite all the apparent political concern about levels of crime and safety in Britain today, this striking and disturbing fact of dramatically increased homicide rates rarely hits the headlines. The Prime Minister and his ministerial colleagues are happy to talk endlessly about kids in hoodies and foreign prisoners. Rarely do we hear them talking in any serious manner about tackling that most violent and final way in which an individual can find themselves a victim of crime.

The fact remains that over 200 more Britons suffer a violent death now compared with 1997. Compared with 1979 it is over 300 more deaths. But this is not the most disturbing fact about homicide in Britain today.

Despite these dramatic rises in violent death, the risk has not been spread evenly. Those living in the richest parts of the country are less likely to be murdered now than they were in the early 1980s. Those living in the poorest parts of the country are around six times more likely to be murdered than they were in the early 1980s.

Homicide, in other words, is a social justice issue. Its incidence is related to social conditions far more than individual badness. The criminal justice system might have a role to play in clearing up the mess once someone has been killed. It has little or no role to play in preventing such killings. It is, quite literally, a fatal mistake to think otherwise.

How about anti-social behaviour? Until the advent of New Labour we never used such a term to describe that collection of minor, but sometimes highly distressing, social problems.

Labour's preferred response has been a criminal justice one, whether this be Asbos or parenting orders, targeted policing or dispersal zones. Ironically this criminal justice approach is sometimes presented as being in line with social justice principles. Louise Casey, Mr Blair's disrespectful Respect Tsar, told a gathering of police officers last year that "sometimes social justice can be ugly". The message was clear: we are on the side of niceness, but this involves some nastiness along the way.

Meanwhile, in the real world those neighbourhoods and estates where the problems of anti-social behaviour are most acute face challenges that no number of Respect action plans and Asbos will address. Take the changes in housing tenure since 1979.

In 1979, 42 per cent of all individuals lived in social housing. By 2002 just 19 per cent did. In 1979 just under a half of those living in social housing were in the poorest two-fifths of the population by income. By 2002 it was 73 per cent. In 2002 only 2 per cent of those living in social housing were in the top fifth of the population by income compared with 13 per cent in 1979.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, in other words, poverty became ever more concentrated in those estates and neighbourhoods that were least able to deal with the collateral damage the came in its wake. And it is this striking fact, and not some kind of outbreak of irresponsibility and wickedness, that is the real context for many of the problems currently described as anti-social behaviour.

The scandal of rising homicide rates and the problems of anti-social behaviour were a long time in the making. New Labour can not be held responsible for the legacy of those decisions made during the 1980s and 1990s. Today's ministers are responsible for the decisions that they take in office. But they are making them in conditions not always of their own choosing.

That said, New Labour has also entrenched, rather than challenged, the Thatcherite legacy. Its increasing reliance on criminal justice responses is symptom of its failure to address the underlying social problems it inherited in 1997. Rather than seeking to resolve these problems, it has sort to manage and regulate them better.

But if, as Compass claims, Labour should be in the business of transforming the current system, not just managing it better, among other things this involves taking crime and its causes seriously. And this means making the achievement of social justice, not the expansion of criminal justice, the starting point.

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