David Cameron spoke today at the Centre for Social Justice (try not to be sick – the CSJ was set up by Iain Duncan Smith, so social justice may not be a given as a key aim) on his new ‘tough but intelligent’ ‘ideas’ (he’s borrowing from Tony Blair, basically, by re-wording ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’).
The speech was largely a cover for more privatisation, with ‘payment by results’ to become the norm to allow private companies and the occasional charity to make money out of rehabilitation. What a ‘result’ would be, and who would be assessing it, Cameron didn’t mention – he’s light on detail as usual, leaving as much room as possible for the thing to be configured for maximum private profitability.
So, in some ways, the speech was just more of the same old Tory, grasping nonsense that has been inflicted on us since the coalition came to power. However, one element of his plan – clearly an appeal to the retired-colonel, ‘angry of Tunbridge Wells’ right wing of his party, is incredibly dangerous, and will actually lead to an increase in murders in our country: the 2-strike rule.
Cameron proposes to remove all discretion from judges and expert criminal lawyers, and impose a mandatory life sentence for a 2nd strike.
‘We’re like the US, only tougher’
In 1993, the US introduced its ‘3-strike law’, which was implemented by many states, with California among the most enthusiastic, with the supposed aim of getting dangerous offenders off the streets permanently and deterring others from committing violent crime. Clearly, Cameron is trying to show a) that he’s not just copying the US by avoiding copying their title exactly, and b) to make out that the Tories are even tougher than the Americans.
That might be all well and good – if it wasn’t such a pile of patent bollocks.
Since the US introduced its measure almost 20 years ago, we have a good period during which the law’s effects can be assessed. And one thing seems absolutely clear – the 3-strike rule has contributed not one jot toward reducing crime. In fact, studies have shown that, while there has been a crime reduction in the US as a whole over the last couple of decades, areas which have applied the rule most enthusiastically have seen less of a fall than those who use it rarely or not at all.
So, if the 3-strike rule doesn’t reduce crime, what does it do? Well, it costs a lot more, basically. Let’s look at California, since the state has been one of the leading proponents of the rule. In 1985, 4% of California’s total spending budget was spent on prisons. In 1993, the year in which it launched its law, that rose to 6%. By 2010, California was spending 10% of its budget – in a time of budget cuts almost in almost every other area – on prisons, prisoners and prison officers.
There are a couple of ways of looking at how this might work out in the UK. California’s spending on prisons rose by 150% relative to pre-strike-law levels, from 4% of its budget to 10%. The UK ‘National Offender Management Service’ (NOMS) budget for 2012 was £3.679 billion. If that increased by 150%, it would mean an increase in cost of £5.5185 billion per year. Even based only on the portion of the budget currently allocated directly to prison spending (£2.181 billion), the impact would be additional cost of £3.27 billion – in a time when the Tories are expecting the prison service to reduce cost by 3% per year.
The other way of looking at it is simpler – and even more frightening, though perhaps less likely as any government will panic and hit the brakes before we reach it, or at least I hope so. California spends 10% of its public-spending budget on prisons. If the UK, with a spending budget of around £1.4 trillion, did the same, we’d spend around £140 billion a year on prisons. As I say, it’s unlikely we’d ever get that far, and US spending on public good is disgracefully low, but it’s one of many reasons to run a mile from anything that resembles a US measure on such things.
There are more important consequences than cost, too. The Tories’ flag-waving, colonel-pleasing measure will cost the lives of police officers and of the public.
Put yourself in the place of an armed robber, for example. You’ve already got one conviction, and you’re about to rob someone else. If you’re caught, you face a mandatory life sentence for a 2nd ‘strike’, as opposed to a sentence of, say, 3-7 years for a first offence.
The people in the jewellery shop that you’re robbing have seen your face. They might identify you. If you kill them and you’re caught, you face a life sentence. If you don’t kill them, and you’re caught, you face a life sentence – but you’re less likely to be caught. If you act logically, it makes more sense to kill them – and the ‘2-strike rule’ just caused the death of 3 bystanders.
Let’s say you wore a mask, so you decide not to kill them. But as you leave the shop you almost run into a police officer. If you’re caught, you go to prison for life – no discretion in the courts, no doubt about the outcome. What do you do?
I don’t think there’s any doubting the logic, but this is still theoretical. So let’s look at the US and see what effect the law has had there.
My logic, tragically, is borne out by the facts. Since the law was introduced, the states who implemented it have seen an increase of 44% in murders of police officers.
The same applies to murders of the general public. In the US, the murder rate for the country as a whole has fallen by 40%. However, in ‘3-strike’ states – in spite of locking away violent offenders for life – the reduction is about 10 points less. Since the 24 states that implemented the law represent about half the population, this means that their rate is dragging down the national average – so that the reduction in states without the law will be substantially higher than 40% and the difference between them and the 3-strike states is even bigger.
So, without question, many people are dying in the US specifically because of the law that David Cameron wants to copy.
So why is he doing it?
Cameron is a desperate man at the moment, frantically casting about for any policy he thinks might shore up his support on the right of his party and distract the electorate from the continual and multi-faceted failures and scandals of his government, which are unmissable in spite of the Tories’ best efforts to keep the public ignorant of much of what they’re doing.
His announcement on energy prices last week was a clear example – if energy companies have to offer the same price to every customer, they’ll certainly opt for a higher price and not a lower one. That’s bad enough.
But with this 2-strike plan, Cameron’s desperation has led him to announce a policy which is going to lead directly to deaths that need never have happened, all for the lost cause of trying to shore up his ratings. And it comes just weeks after the deaths of the two brave officers in Greater Manchester.
Cameron has a very short memory. Either that, or he just doesn’t care, and his political popularity is far more important to him than the lives of the people he’s supposed to be serving, or the lives of the police who try to protect them.