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Sunday, April 24, 2011

This appetite for revenge against offenders will never cut crime

This appetite for revenge against offenders will never cut crime

Angry Daily Mail readers should not define criminal justice policy. Further punishment for already abused troubled youngsters will only lead to more problems, says Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson,, Tuesday 19 April 2011 17.43 BST

Last week, this newspaper profiled the new head of the London probation service, Heather Munro. She expressed a new approach to managing offenders. It can be summarised in one word: respect. Over a lifetime of probation work, Munro has come to believe that listening to offenders when they express needs and treating them with the same respect businesses show their customers can help to change behaviour and reduce reoffending.

The Daily Mail was not impressed and neither were its readers. Online, there were many calls for Munro's immediate sacking and insults were hurled. Offenders were "little bastards" who need much tougher treatment, not this politically-correct nonsense.

Those readers think they want punishment, but in fact they are baying for vengeance. Frontline workers such as Munro and Metropolitan police officers, who are trying a talking approach with gangs, recognise that the UK's criminal justice system should not be built on vengeance. But look out of the window and you will see another line of lads in humiliating jackets, sent out in the name of community payback. This might make the public feel good, but it does nothing to cut crime because it isn't about helping bad boys address their behaviour and change: it's simply a piece of theatre to satisfy the audience's desire for vengeance.

The public is appeased but short-changed all through the system. Funding for the high security estate has hardly been trimmed, so prisoners are inside for life on expensive violence reduction programmes, while interventions that might help younger offenders are slashed. Offenders whose crimes are the result of drugs, alcohol or mental health problems still remain untreated. And where there are programmes, these are too often run by the cheapest bidder and too often staffed by volunteers instead of the paid professional therapists who can help bring about change.

The public's desire for vengeance comes as no surprise to offenders. It simply reflects back at them their own behaviour. Many have wrestled with punishment, shame and consequent rage since birth. People from loveless, punishing backgrounds are without self-esteem. They do not have the capacity to love others because they cannot risk rejection without the protection of self-esteem. Inside a loveless void it is possible to commit crimes against others. It is, after all, easier to define yourself as a bad boy than a needy boy.

Munro has recognised that current services do not meet needs. Too many providers are distanced by their own professionalism. The media-appeasing programmes they offer are defined by cost-cutting and streamlined business practice, not by recognising what can bring about change. One childhood experience that we know leads to later criminal activity is abuse – physical, emotional or sexual. But we do little about it, even for those on the at-risk list.

If we want to cut crime then vengeance, disguised as public protection, can no longer remain the cornerstone of the criminal justice system. We should stop reinforcing the loveless, disrespectful world offenders know so well and instead subject them to the tough love that has been denied them at home. We need individual, person-centred programmes to help them change because change is possible in anyone who has the capacity to be honest.

Second, if we want to help victims, we should start by helping the child victims who will grow up enraged, seeking vengeance through crime. If we looked behind more closed doors we would find many children who are frightened, abused and neglected. They are tomorrow's offenders and we must intervene effectively today, training parents and setting up alternative healthy attachments for damaged young people.

Our attitude to the most vulnerable shows how civilised we are. Angry Mail readers should not define policy. A punishing childhood is the bedrock of crime and if our response is based on more vengeance and punishment there can be no solutions. Just more problems.

Mark Johnson, a rehabilitated offender and former drug user, is an author and the founder of the charity User Voice.

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