In elections we often hear about the main political parties playing the 'law and order' card of setting out tougher and tougher policies to tackle crime rates. Last years local elections saw the 'foreign prisoners scandal' that led to the replacement of then Home Secretary Charles Clarke by John Reid.
'Law and order' ideology arose in the late 70's promoted in this country by Thatcher and the Tories who made crime an electoral issue. It arose as a response to the re-habilitative ideal that collapsed in the 60's and 70's where the penal system (prisons, police etc.) focussed on trying to re-integrate offenders back into society by treating them as if something was wrong with them (like in medicine). The problem wasn't that something was wrong with all offenders, however, it was the capitalist system that can never provide for everyone, as it requires ever increasing concentration of wealth (which underlies many property crimes). Not only this the whole nature of intense competition and struggle for survival under such a system places huge strains and stresses on individuals (which underlies all crime and things such as drug abuse and alchoholism). No matter how much you treat some individuals you are fighting a losing battle as the system is the big problem that causes the others.
As such crime rates were rising and the old rehabilitative system was seen as falling apart. Taking the quasi-religious notion that offenders are evil or somehow implicitly wrong no matter what and also the idea that if you make the penal system scary enough nobody will offend (even though as I've explained the nature of the system means that people will commit criminal offences regardless of this), 'law and order' ideology took the position that one had to have heavy sanctions for offenders and and lots of police officers to appear threatening.
Of course marxists should point out that any bulking up of the penal system is a bulking up of the state of forces that can be used against the working class in struggle, indeed Thatcher used her extra 'coppers' to batter the 1984-85 miners strike. Demands should be posed to counter the grip of the ruling classes on the state forces (such as more openness, democratisation etc.), although ultimately the tops of these forces will side with the ruling class and indecision will help workers struggles.
We also have to understand why 'law and order' ideology appeal to some workers and continues to do so. The reason was that the rehabilitative ideal was failing to reduce or even control crime which threatens working class people. No-one wants to be the victim of a rape, burglary or assault, workers and other people are afraid of crime, they don't want to become victims to it. In this situation saying that you could immediately reduce the crime rate by scaring people out of doing it presents itself as an easy solution to the problem. However, it is a solution that was never going to work and hasn't as is shown by the huge increase in crime and prison population that has occured for the last almost thirty years.
We need to not pose a return to the rehabilitative ideal (although some elements such as giving people the opportunity to access decent education will still be relevant), but to rid ourselves of the capitalist system that breeds mass crime and fight for a socialist world.