Saturday, 20 August 2011

Gabb: reforming criminal justice

Sean Gabb has some good ideas for reforming our criminal justice system into one that properly deters criminals, while leaving the rest of us alone.
First, we need to abolish every so-called crime that doesn’t have an identifiable victim. This means relegalising drugs for adults, and respecting freedom of speech and association. It also means ignoring acts that may be preparations for crime, but are not in themselves attacks on life and property. It isn’t the business of the law if people smoke dope, or speak ill of minorities or refuse to do business with them, or if people keep guns at home, or collect books about bomb-making, or if they bribe foreign politicians, or even get involved in plots to kill them. Enforcing these laws leads straight to a police state and soaks up oceans of our money that could and should be spent on catching actual thieves and violent criminals.

Second, we need to go back to all those old common law rules that used to protect the innocent. We need the right to silence, and peremptory challenge of jurors – we need to stop the drift away from trial by jury. We need the rule against hearsay evidence, and the full presumption of innocence. Cutting down on these protections doesn’t make it easier to punish the guilty. It just enables more miscarriages of justice.

Third, we need to make sure that those found guilty of the remaining crimes are effectively punished. The idea that prison can reform bad character is stupid. People are what they are. If they go wrong, they should be punished in ways that the rest of us think just, and that scare them from reoffending.

It seems like a harder line than his previous post (Is Prison too Soft?). The idea of compensating victims has some merit, but as Gabb notes in his more recent article, compensation must go beyond simple replacement of the stolen goods:

For example, you’ve burgled me. Well, you’ve cost me £3,000 for lost property, plus £5,000 for the fear and anxiety of a violated home. So you pay me £8,000. If you don’t have the money, you’re set to work on digging the roads or stitching mailbags until you’ve earned it.

This is important not just for the "fear and anxiety", but because we have far less than a 100% conviction rate. A rational thief, if he judges that he has only a 1 in 100 chance of getting caught, would happily continue stealing unless he were forced to repay more than 100 times the value of the goods stolen. That could mean a lot of ditch digging and mailbag stitching. It also feels a bit too businesslike, as if there's nothing wrong with stealing so long as compensation is made.

Gabb does seem sympathetic to corporal punishment for violent offenders:

If you knocked me on the head when I found you in my home, you pay much more – and get a sound beating as well. After that, you’re set free.

I too think this might not be such a bad idea, and I'd be happy for the lashing to be conducted in public, but I imagine most people in modern Britain would find it a bit too barbaric.

What is clearly a stupid idea is locking criminals away with other criminals (some worse than themselves). In prison they experience an alternative morality, surrounded by people with no respect for the law. They become more callous and brutal, perhaps pick up a drug addiction, and meet future partners in crime.

Personally, I think prison done properly can play an important part in deterrence and rehabilitation. I'd like every prisoner's initial stay to be in solitary confinement. Let someone spend a 6 months in a windowless room, soundproof room, with bland food served by machines, and not even guards to talk to. Then they may begin to appreciate the benefits of human society. Let them then be released into a school-like prison, with the strictest standards of discipline. They would be taught the old fashioned way, to read, write, dress, and speak properly. They would have private cells, but unadorned with personal items. Any sign of disrespect to guards or fellow prisoners would earn them another spell in solitary. Contact with friends and relatives from the outside would only be allowed after many months, and these meetings would be closely monitored, with no physical contact possible. Interaction with fellow prisoners would be strictly limited to the classroom environment. Gradually, as the release date approaches, prisoners could be transferred to new units that more closely resemble the outside world, but any regression would still earn them a new spell in solitary.

Prison doesn't currently work, but it can be made to.

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