Wednesday, 13 August 2008

On Arbitrary Laws and Punishments

Please note, this post was written about two weeks ago but I forgot to publish it then.

Today the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have reported that the Department of Transport are planning on fining people £70 for parking too far way from the kerb. That was the specific piece of information that got me thinking once more about the raft of penalties, punishments and new laws that have been passed by the current New Labour government. Indeed the current government has made over 1000 new offences in its period of office. Generally the net effect has been to criminalise things that weren’t criminal or weren’t recorded as criminal in the past as well as increasing the penalty for offences.

It is not, however, that something does not need to be done about the problems they aim to tackle. It is a question of what strategy will lead to the eventual reduction and, hopefully, elimination of such actions. A good example is of littering, I doubt there is anyone in favour of littering, yet it happens all the time. So to tackle this we have powers for £75 on the spot fines going up to a possible £2500 fine if taken to magistrates court (by the way this is from sections 87 and 88 of the 1990 Environmental Protection Act – so it’s not just New Labour who are guilty of passing such laws) Indeed, we now have spot fines for an array of things including littering, anti-social behaviour (a very vague category!), shop lifting, begging, swearing and probably plenty of other stuff to boot.

The amount of stupid things that these get given for is outrageous. There are stories of things like a goth been fined £80 for saying that a weapons detecting machine was a “piece of shit that wouldn’t stop anything”. Did you also know that under the 1824 Vagrancy Act beggars can be fined a £1000 (and how are they supposed to pay that?). Indeed, there is a compilation of the ten most ridiculous fines of all time here .

And obviously this hasn’t done all that much about it crime, despite claims that crime as measured by official figures is down (for a debunking of Home Office crime figures see, it is also worth nothing that how much crime is up or down depends on which year you use as a baseline). Indeed, its worth noting that crime was rising according to most of these figures whilst these were operative too and even if they had some impact other factors will play an influence. (ie. we could just be in a ‘natural’ low crime patch).

The other part of this is not just increasing what you can be punished for, but increasing the punishments themselves. Such measures as indeterminate sentences, mandatory minimum sentences and three strikes and you’re out policies create this alongside simply encourage sentencers to be more harsh. Average sentence length is increasing and has been for a while.

Of course the argument goes that the current level of sentencing isn’t having an effect so it needs to be increased. But then that’s because the police simply don’t catch the majority of offenders, the deterrent effect of sentencing is minimal. But if people call for more police it is worth pointing out that the police only manage to solve a tiny proportion of crime at the moment and to punish every single offence would require more police than is financially feasible ever! (and that’s assuming that they would remain at the same level of effectiveness and a whole load of other factors)

Okay so I’ve outlined what I think is problematic. What is the general trend of these things then? Well in my opinion it is one towards arbitraryness and bureaucratism where it produces easily digested ‘tough’ policies for media consumption. It is a much neater headline saying “Prison for all knife carriers” than a more nuanced approach. Furthermore it is completely undemocratic in my mind. It is our criminal justice system, shouldn’t we have a say rather than the back and forth banter between the government and media that seems to create these policies.

I’ve posted before about the fact that so much power over our criminal justice system which affects us on a very local basis is concentrated so high up in the state structures (ie. with the Home Secretary)

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