10 March 2010

SNP must reject Labour's penal premise on prison...

Releasing the annual Scottish Government statistical bulletin on Criminal Proceedings in Scottish Courts is a delicate enterprise. Firstly, the figures reflect on a past year’s court work, which in turn reflects, in our clogged system, on crimes committed some time before. Secondly, like all quantitative work, they give us categories and numbers about categories – but quite how these relate to lived experience is riddled with uncertainties. Countless threats to the external validity of the figures can be imagined. Criminologists have, for some time, furnished us with a critical vocabulary to reflect on the temptations to make crude, causal remarks alleging a mistaken identity between formal, institutional statistics and the prevalence of crime out there. On their face, the numbers give us grounds to doubt. For instance, the just-published 2008 – 2009 figures are quite up front about some of the context and the significant gaps in our criminal accounting. Look at Chart 2, which I’ve attached to the side here. All figures shown are rounded to the nearest 100. Moreover, some reported crimes won’t be resolved in the same year. This is one of the consequences of artificial yearly divisions.

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 (Scotland) Bill on knife-possession and prison. I stress again, we have to read these figures as an index of prosecutions and court-disposals, not as any easy indicator of crimes committed. Take – quite at random from the press-cuttings you understand – this dribble from Richard Baker, Labour’s Swine Pursuivant and Justice Gob:

“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 Scotland. 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 England and Wales and 14 for Northern Ireland. Just under half of the Scottish figures represented deaths caused by a pointed weapon.”

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.


  1. Isn't it only a matter of time till McLeish jumps ship and joins the SNP?

  2. Anonymous,

    I doubt it, frankly. Particularly because there is much to be said for attending to the direction of your own ship, particularly if you think that it is drifting listlessly in the wrong direction. My own relationship with the SNP fairly regularly assumes such a posture. In particular, many of my views are undoubtedly closer to Patrick Harvie's than they are to Alex Salmond's. Do I jump ship, become a Green Nat in consequence? (Psst! Don't tell Two Doctors' James, or he might try and proselytise me...)

    Yet the same thing would undoubtedly happen there - you'd feel yourself repelled by some aspect of your new party's platform and attracted by others.

  3. I'm intrigued to know what would repel you about us Greens. Consider this a very indirect attempt to proselytise if you will.

  4. Sorry for the delay in response, James. I didn't notice your comment until now. "Repel" is a pretty strong word! I wouldn't say I'm repelled, but presently governed by complex, mutually inconsistent attractions!

    (Although I admit, there are parts of the loose Greenie movement I have difficulties rubbing along with - the dogged, mirthless, uncynical Leftie-gauche student types who I recall being particularly tedious.) As I think I've mentioned to you before, I've rubbed along with a number of committed members of the Scottish Greens in my social life. Many of the people I encountered were conscientious, intelligent, righteous. It also gave me a chance for comparative orientation, if you will!

    On what is often seen as the governing 'Green' category - the environment - I don't have very strong or well informed views. Which probably reflects the absence of a native spur to engage with the issues. At least thus far. That being so, self-identifying as a Greenie for me would feel rather difficult.

    Moreover, entailed are the invariable questions about parties of government and political parties very much in the minority, on the fringes - and from which side of the chamber one is more likely to realise your own vision of the fair, the just and the good. My own inclinations are to try to push the centrist party leftward on particular issues, as part of an internal critique of party orthodoxies. Sodding off entails an inevitably partisan "Othering" which concerns me, leaving the field uncontested. So as not to give an excessively rationalised account, deluding myself about the justifiability of the thing, I should admit that habit is an important determinant also of sticking by your existing affiliations.

    Its something which I've been thinking about more generally, and generating a number of uncomfortable and interesting questions about my affiliation and what degree of deviation from my own ideas I'm willing to suffer before a break becomes inevitable, or even the conscientious thing to do. As I hope my blogging reflects - I do try to engage with issues for myself, criticise when Salmond and Shoal's priorities and philosophies deviate from my own. I don't feel my SNP membership chaffing me, terribly that way, and so habit and broad alignment of views continues to rule.

    That said, I can envisage a future point where that might not be the case, warranting thought and consideration in the here and now.