Saturday, 2 June 2012

Crime is the criminal's fault - why the left should listen more to what the right says


I guess we need to start at the beginning with crime. With where the blame lies. With the criminal.

Too often we are enjoined to find excuses – explanations in society – for crime. Psychologists tell us to look into the criminals upbringing, sociologists point to the environment in which the offender has lived, anthropologists mutter about peer pressure and some economists point the finger at the perverse incentives that come from inequality or financial failure.

Is all this wrong? Or should we seek a simpler explanation, one rooted in the idea of personal responsibility – crime is the fault of the criminal. Nobody makes the burglar burgle, the robber rob or the rapist rape. They do it themselves by their own choice and their upbringing, the urgings of peers or the porn movie they’ve just watched are of no consequence in all this – those things did not make the criminal a criminal. I know this to be true because other people have a similar deprived (or depraved) upbringing and do not burgle, others resist the lure of the gang and plenty watch porn without becoming rapists.

This view of crime is most commonly associated – in every case but rape – with conservatives and, more particularly with the right of the conservative party. Here’s Michael Howard back in 2004:

As a society we are in danger of being overrun by values which eat away at people's respect for themselves, each other, their homes and their neighbourhood.

Most damaging of all has been the dramatic decline in personal responsibility.

Many people now believe that they are no longer wholly responsible for their actions.

It's someone else's, or something else's fault - the environment, society, the Government.

In the case of rape Howard and the conservative right are joined – for this crime only it seems at times – by the left, something that is a cause for celebration since it shows that with the right conditions, these people can be persuaded that criminality is a matter of personal choice not an inevitable consequence of poverty, inequality or some other of society’s ailments. The individual – and how refreshing it is that some on the left are willing to acknowledge choice – does not have to commit crime, there is no inevitability.

So having got that clear – crime is always, without exception, the fault of the criminal – we should consider the more nuanced, even vexed, question that crime exists. That some circumstances put us at greater risk of being a victim and that there are things that we can do (or that others can do) to reduce this risk.

At the neighbourhood forums in our village, the police now attend (they call them “Partners & Communities Together” meetings, an especially annoying term) to listen to local concerns, update us on crime and provide advice. This advice, most commonly, takes the form of reminding us to lock doors, close windows and make other precautions against the criminal – we’re warned of “Hanoi” burglaries, told how easy it is to break the locks of plastic doors and reminded that garden sheds are also a target. All good stuff and welcome.

And when our sons and daughters are first going out in an evening, we worry about getting that late night call from the hospital. So we give good advice – don’t drink too much, stay together, don’t go off with strangers, make sure you have enough money to get home. We’ll sometimes tell our sons or daughters to avoid certain places – perhaps a particular pub or maybe a certain location – because we know they’re more dangerous.

All of this advice – not to mention the fretting and worrying – is intended to reduce the risk of being a victim. It doesn’t contradict the responsibility of the criminal for his or her crime – the burglary is still the fault of the burglar, the mugging is the fault of the mugger and the rape is the fault of the rapist.

But, however much we may wish it otherwise, there are burglars, there are robbers and there are rapists. So reducing our personal risk makes sense – reclaiming the night may be a desirable and laudable aim but until it is reclaimed that personal risk remains. So if going to a certain place increases that risk it is foolish to go there, if not securing our house increases that risk then we should secure our house and if staying in well lit, patrolled areas keeps us safe we should try to stay in those areas.

The same goes for wider social interventions – if reducing poverty (or aborting baby boys as has been observed) reduces the number of criminals that is good but not why we should try to reduce poverty. If fewer single parent families reduces crime that is also good but not why we should consider the social impact of single parenthood. And if better schools mean fewer crimes that is wonderful but not why we should want better schools.

Some people simply make the choice to be criminals – to steal, to assault, to kill, to rape. And they must not be allowed to use the Randy’s response:

"I'm depraved on account of I'm deprived"

Crime is the fault of the criminal. But that doesn’t mean we – as individuals and as a society – shouldn’t try to make things safer for the law abiding. And it certainly means we shouldn't act to make it less safe for people.


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