Don’t mock ‘hug a hoodie’. It was, and still is, the right message

Published in The Guardian (June 1st, 2012)

Like so many famous political phrases, David Cameron never actually said that anyone should ‘hug a hoodie’. No matter. For it became a phrase that helped define him as a new kind of Conservative, someone ready to slay the old shibboleths in his drive to decontaminate the Tory brand.

In fact, what he said was far more interesting. In a keynote speech in 2006, soon after becoming leader, he emphasised the need to understand the root causes of crime and recognise there was no hope of answering why people commit crime unless we ask the right questions. He pointed out these questions were complex, revolving around issues such as family breakdown, mental health, poor education, inadequate state care systems and substance abuse.

The fact that this was remotely controversial, that it was leapt on by opponents as some kind of political gaffe, shows only the depressing level of what passes for debate on crime in this country. Prison populations rise, spending soars, but politicians must resort to tired and reckless rhetoric to appease those demanding tough action.

So Michael Howard happily declared “prison works”, despite all evidence to the contrary. New Labour, so contemptuous of civil liberties, passed an astonishing 28 criminal justice bills in 13 years; one new offence was put on the statute book for every day in government, perhaps the most egregious example of government by headline.

The coalition set out determined to let reason and reality intrude on this debate. A drive to increase accountability through police commissioners and crime mapping was combined with the abolition of indeterminate sentences and innovative use of results-led payments to promote rehabilitation. Cameron is yet to make a speech on crime since taking office two years ago, a pleasant change from the froth and synthetic fury of Tony Blair.

Sadly, as evidenced by the new-look anti-social behavioural orders announced last week, the government is now wobbling as it strives to shore up waning popularity. It is expected that Ken Clarke will be punished for speaking sense on crime, given more time to ‘chillax’ after his replacement as justice secretary by a successor resorting to more familiar gesture politics of the past. “We need a veneer of toughness,” one government figure told me. “Although whatever you do, it is never enough.”

This is defeatist and depressing talk. We have had two decades of simplistic slogans and pathetic political stunts. If the government really wants to look tough, it would take on the mob constantly baying for blood rather than pouring vast sums of money down the drain on pointless penal policies. Locking up more and more people in jam-packed jails does not cut crime – whatever the focus groups tell you.

The prison population in England and Wales has almost doubled over the past two decades, hitting all-time highs last year of 88,179 inmates. Each one costs taxpayers close to £40,000 a year – and this is supposed to be a time of austerity, with cuts elsewhere. Yet this month saw the opening of Oakwood near Wolverhampton, a showpiece “superjail” and one of the biggest in Britain.

We put proportionately more people behind bars than anywhere else in Europe. Yet while crime is falling, as in many other countries, we suffer almost double the average number of offences the continent does per capita. In some jails, seven out of 10 inmates end up back behind bars. Still there are those insatiable demands to get even tougher on crime. This is the politics of the madhouse.

Now look abroad. In the US, some of the most conservative states are leading a revolution in rehabilitation after recognising that an expensive prison system locking up the same people again and again is another sign of state failure. A movement born in the unlikely environs of Texas has swept across the country, led by rightwingers and driven by the financial imperatives of a system locking up people at three times the rate of this country and seven times the rate of France. Despite their hideously punitive – and racially divisive – justice system, crime rates fell at the same rate as in Europe, leading to the inevitable conclusion that there is no link between sentencing severity and trends in crime.

Closer to home, Finland went from one of the highest levels of incarceration in Europe to one of the lowest, reducing rates to about a third of Britain’s. The sudden switch in philosophy was perhaps the most perfect experiment in criminal justice and penal policies. So after countless studies, what was the conclusion? Imprisonment levels make little difference to crime rates, but locking up fewer people means more money to tackle the social problems underlying crime.

Unlike here, prison numbers in both Germany and the Netherlands have fallen in line with crime reductions. The Dutch matched this country by having the fastest rates of increase in Europe from 1992 to 2004. Then they changed tactics, with more emphasis on tough community punishments combined with treatment for addicts and the mentally ill. The move has been so successful they expect to halve the prison population within a decade, allowing them to close eight jails and even rent one out to the Belgians.

Countries do not have to keep consigning the flotsam and jetsom of society to prison in ever greater numbers. There are alternatives that work as well, if not better, while also being far cheaper, an important consideration amid the current economic maelstrom. Political courage combined with coherent policies on community punishments, restorative justice and rehabilitation can deliver the elusive holy grail of declining crime, declining prison populations and declining budgets.

Despite widespread derision, Cameron was on the right lines in his so-called hug a hoodie speech. We will never solve our most fundamental problems if we do not ask the right questions and learn the right answers – wherever we can find them.

Unfortunately, all too often politicians opt for the short-term political gain of tough talk over the long-term societal gain of far tougher action.

This is an extended version of my introduction to the Criminal Justice Alliance report ‘Reducing the use of imprisonment: What can we learn from Europe?’

Related Posts

Categorised in: , ,