Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A government in confusion: one month later the Justice Secretary speaks

It has taken about one month for the UK's Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to comment on the riots that spread across several British cities in August. London saw three nights of riots while several cabinet ministers -- including the Prime Minister -- were away on summer holidays. Surprisingly, we hear only now from Clarke and what he says is disappointing. (Details here.)

Clarke blames not poverty, but criminality for the riots. He notes figures that 75% of those charged -- and over the age of 18 -- held prior criminal convictions. Thus, we should place blame in "a feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism" for the riots. The solution is to better rehabilitate the "criminal classes" through urgent prison reform.

There are several concerns we may raise at this analysis:

The statistics are unhelpful. Clarke speaks of "75%" but recall that this is of persons charged over the age of 18. First, a significant number of rioters have not been charged and perhaps half or more may be under 18 years of age. If half of those charged are under 18, then we're looking at about 37.5% of all persons charged having prior convictions. Clarke wants to paint a picture of rampant criminality. Perhaps such a picture is present, but the statistics do not tell this story. Or at least not yet.

Poverty and unemployment is not disproven as a contributing factor. Let us suppose most rioters had prior convictions. They might also be unemployed. Statisticians can help us separate the causal variables, but the fact that there is a presence of one variable -- say, past conviction -- does not mean other variables (e.g., unemployment) are not contributing factors. Indeed, there may well be a link. Either way, there is rich evidence about the link between relative poverty and unemployment with locations of rioting, such as here. (For a full map, see here.)

Rehabilitation costs time, effort . . . and resources. Clarke insists that his call for better rehabilitation is not an attempt to do criminal justice on the cheap, as he eagerly seeks to reduce imprisonment numbers (and the justice budget with police cuts forthcoming). Rehabilitation of criminals requires more than a well placed political wish: it requires time and resource investment. Tackling criminality is complex, but well researched territory. Support groups and assistance as well as skills acquisition (to assist re-entry into labour force) have been proven to work, but they take time and resources. While it is reassuring to see a government minister espouse the virtues of criminal rehabilitation, one wonders if he has got the sums right. Recidivism will not drop overnight and there will be cases from time to time that will put renew pressure on ministers to increase punishments to satisfy public anger. Political will must be matched with the patience and resources to see this programme through. It is unlikely these features will obtain in an often divided coalition government imposing major austerity measures.

In the end, I believe Clarke's comments are both long overdue (e.g., where has he been for the several weeks?) and disappointing (e.g., after a month, this is the best analysis he can muster?). Why? I suspect that he is still within a weak position in the coalition.

At the first reshuffle, expect to see a new Justice Minister. Oh, and expect the emphasis on rehabilitation (rather than Michael Howard's "prison works" theme) to be dropped. Such developments are not particularly positive developments, but the most likely in my view.

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