Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Plaid and Crime

This is a review of Leanne Wood's recent Plaid Cymru policy statement 'Making Our Communities Safer' - which can be found at http://www.plaidcymru.org/uploads/publications/319.pdf. This has already been discussed on the Socialist Unity blog see http://www.socialistunity.com/?p=2324. This review can also be found on the Socialist Party Wales website.

A document by Plaid AM Leanne Wood

Reviewed by Iain Dalton (Bangor SP)

Crime has been ever more increasingly in the press over the last few years as one of the biggest issues affecting people. However, we have been fed a programme of populist, punitive schemes to combat crime by this New Labour government that have only made the problem worse. Thus it is welcome that Leanne Wood, a ‘left’ Assembly member for Plaid Cymru and former probation officer has written a document challenging these policies and attempting to outline an alternative policy for Plaid Cymru.

After the summary and recommendations, the report begins by stating “Community life in Wales is at risk. UK Government attacks on public services and the historic lack of a Welsh economic policy has meant that community viability has had to depend upon the whims of the market. Whilst there have been some winners, most communities and the people living within them have been losers.” Undoubtedly cuts to public services have had a dramatic impact across the UK and especially in Wales which to a great extent has not in some areas recovered from. But it is not just the UK government that is affecting these cuts, the Welsh Assembly and local councils have happily passed on budget cuts to cuts to services, despite moaning about it rather than taking practical steps to do something about it. For Wood, safe communities are the key to fighting crime, a safe community is one in which someone (and those they care about) can move around in free from fear.

Wood correctly points out the abject failure of current government policies to tackle crime. She points out that the imprisonment rate for the UK (I assume she means England and Wales as Scotland is a separate jurisdiction) 50% higher than France, Germany and Italy and that (much more shockingly in my opinion) 72% of the male prison population (the vast bulk of the prison population) have two or more mental health disorders. Wood also points of the re-offending rate and how this is linked to drug and alcohol dependency which is very prevalent among offenders.

Wood also comments on how sentences are increasing, pointing out the 34% increase in prison sentences for women for driving offences, and makes several other comments regarding female prisoners including the large proportion sentenced for drug offences and the ‘recycling’ of women through prison on short sentences that means no rehabilitation could possibly occur.

Wood also comments on how some aspects of crime policy, such as preventative elements related to housing, education, domestic abuse, youth justice etc. have been devolved to the Welsh Assembly, but control of policing, criminal law, the courts, probation and prisons remains with the new Ministry of Justice.

In criticizing the recent policy from the Home Office, she notes the admixture of free-market liberalism with punitivism and prohibition. We have seen in recent years the largest ever prison population, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) criminalizing young people, clamping down on civil liberties and the proposed ID cards. Alongside this we’ve seen drinking laws relaxed, the promotion of super casinos and the opening up of the probation service to privatization.

In trying to answer the question of why crime has become such a political issue she points out the contradiction between the declining crime rates and the ever increasing fear and perception of crime. She reviews the usual links between media portrayals of crime out of control, and points out that ‘anti-social behaviour’ was invented by New Labour, indeed much of their effort against crime has been directed at low level crime which only seems to have made the problem worse.

To do something about crime, Wood correctly argues that we have to understand why people commit crime. She briefly surveys things like poverty, substance abuse, lack of youth facilities and mental health problems, pointing out the shocking statistics relating to this including over half a million people in Wales living in poverty and the much greater prevalence of mental health problems in former coal mining areas.

Crime policy towards young people comes under severe criticism from Wood. She points out that because there is only one secure children’s home in Wales about 84% of young offenders from Wales are imprisoned in England. But it is ASBOs which come in for the most criticism (quite rightly!). As she explains ASBOs are not criminal offences, but their breaching can result in imprisonment, meaning that people are being sent to prison for offences that wouldn’t even warrant a fine or community service order! She cites figures from the Youth Justice Board showed that 700 children and young people had been imprisoned for ASBO breaches, and she also points out that figures show that about half of all ASBOs are breached.

So far so good. These criticisms of government policies are something socialists would agree with. But what does she propose? The main proposal is to make criminal justice issues fully devolved to the Welsh Assembly government, so that they can prioritise tackling the causes of crime. The bulk of the proposals lay in substituting the punitive approach of new labour for a rehabilitative approach, alongside a pro-active preventative approach with young people generally, and specific interventions for those who have committed criminal offences or anti-social behaviour. Of course, such an approach would be a big improvement on current government policies, but unfortunately it doesn’t tackle many of the real problems.

Poverty, substance abuse, mental health problems are by products of living in an alienating society based on greed rather than need. Wood’s proposals are attempting to deal with these damaging by products, rather than their root causes. No mention is made of trying to deal with the devastation caused to communities by multinationals that decide to leave for lower wage economies, nor the current financial squeeze which is being reinforced by below inflation public sector pay deals and an appallingly low minimum wage.

Further more, these solutions would not empower ordinary people to be able to do anything, rather create a whole layer of professionals who will control the lives of thousands. It is a recipe for a top-down system which would still fail to respond to the needs of ordinary people in Wales.

Instead, Socialists would start from the need for the democratic control of the whole criminal justice system so that priorities can be decided by local communities. We would also advocate the democratic control of the economy to provide well-paid jobs and employment for all. Of course, some of the suggestions that Wood makes would be incorporated into a socialist strategy to tackle crime, such as increased availability of facilities to help those with drug problems, but to be successful it would need to be linked to the key socialist policies stated above to have any real chance.


Renegade Eye said...

I'm not sure if it's because of Bush in office, but in the US you don't hear such outspokeness toward prison reform. The community is muzzled. That makes that Welsh statement a pleasant surprise.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

There a lot of people commenting about prisons as they keep getting very close and going over capacity for the last few years. the point i'm trying to make is that although what leanne suggests is an improvement it isn't socialism and we shouldn't kind ourselves that we can solve societies problems without socialism

Highlander said...

Excellent piece which I enjoyed reading. I always find the disparity between perceived levels of crime and the figures that we are fed for incidence of crime interesting. We are told crime is falling, the media hype relentlessly goes on, public fear of crime rises and the MP's feel they need to act more strongly. The net result is, as you say, the criminalisation of otherwise fairly innocuous acts and increasingly heavy-handed and intrusive activity by our law enforcement agencies. "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime"? - my arse.