Although we begin at crimes committed, that category immediately fractures into silences, the crime undetected, unrecorded, reported to the polis but not recorded. Then we have the manifold disposals that never reach the stage of Criminal Proceedings in Scottish Courts, whether they are police warnings, or the procurator fiscal taking no action, or resorting to other, out-of-court, fine-based disposals. Predictably enough, most of the ensuing politics this morning have tried to turn the statistics to partisan advantage, focussing on proposed amendments to the Criminal Justice & Licensing (
“These figures show the absolute folly of the SNP plans to scrap six-month prison sentences. Knife crime is up (by 3 per cent) as well as a huge increase in lewd and indecent behaviour (of 34 per cent) and still justice secretary Kenny MacAskill presses on with his under-funded and dangerous plans.”
The idea that the various Scots bureaucracies of punishment make their choices about how to proceed in a vacuum is vacuous. The Crown Office clearly participate in the definition of knife crime as a Scottish “social problem”. Consider, for example, the Crown Appeal of last November on the ordinary “punishment part” of prison sentences in case of murder. The Lord Advocate, Elish Angiolini, particularly emphasised pointed weapons in her submissions:
“The Lord Advocate emphasised that murders committed with knives, swords and similar weapons were currently a matter of grave concern in
. Although there were no figures available specifically for murder cases, she advised us that police figures for homicides as a whole indicated that for 2007/08 there were 22 per million in Scotland as against 14.6 for Scotland and England and 14 for Wales . Just under half of the Scottish figures represented deaths caused by a pointed weapon.” Northern Ireland
Said the Court...
“We agree that at the present time knife crime is a scourge in the Scottish community and that the court should be acting, and be seen to be acting, in a way which discourages the carrying of sharp weapons, the use of which may lead to needless deaths.”
My speech marks around “social problem” were not to minimise the threat posed by people carrying offensive weapons day to day. Rather, what I’m trying to emphasise is that such conduct has already been singled out for heightened attention by prosecutorial authorities and police. Labour and Tories aren’t leading that campaign, but are simply plodding along afterwards, greasily trying to associate themselves with it, and by shouting loudly, attempting to assume an attitude of leadership. For these reasons, we might not be surprised that there has been an increase in prosecutions based on knife-carrying and associated crimes against the person. It does not indicate, however, that more knives are being carried on Scottish streets. If you look for something, you are more likely to find it. If knife-possession is defined as a social problem, you are more likely to see court prosecutions as a response to that perceived problem. Punishment bureaucracies don’t make their discretionary choices about who to prosecute in an organic, wholly autonomous way, which is simply expressive of the underlying experience of crime. They have their own agendas of selection. So much should be obvious.
I’ve made my own views on the problems posed by incarceration adamantly clear in two previous posts. There is a think a fair point to be made, argued loosely by Jeff this morning, that the position the SNP and Liberal Democrats are taking isn’t crystal clear. To my mind, part of this is the party’s defensive posture. There is a sense in which allegations of limpness have to be fended off by demonstrating that you are as hardy a punisher as the rest of them. The sagacious Liberal Democrat, Robert Brown, strikes the right note in his remarks, however, arguing:
“These figures show that rates of reoffending are appallingly high. Offenders frequently come out of prison as more hardened offenders than when they went in – and all at huge cost to the public purse.”
It is this point that the SNP should be hammering the penal morons with. What is Baker’s answer? More prison? What has Baillie Bill to say, beyond blinkered reiterations of the purposeless formulae of punishment? In this respect, the SNP could do worse than remembering – and reminding the commentating classes – about the Scottish Prisons Commission’s report Scotland’s Choice, and what it had to say about brief spells in jail. The SNP’s argument for ending short-term prison sentences will never emerge from its defensive position unless the premises of Labour and Tory policies are robustly rejected. Why is it tough on crime to perpetuate a social policy that generates crime and violence? We have the figures. What is their answer? Do they deny the significance of recidivism? Have they even thought about it? What about Kenny MacAskill's character - the "totally misguided person who thinks a knife gives extra protection". Do Labour and Tory really think that such characters don't exist? Alternatively, if they are willing to concede that they do exist, do they honestly hold that such a soul would be improved by two years in prison? Do they think his crime is so egregious that a Sheriff should have no discretion to distinguish the daft from the deeply dangerous? I haven't lost all faith in the Scottish Labour Party's capacity for the application of right-reason. Surely Henry McLeish cannot be the only man in the red ranks who disagrees with Richard Baker.