New Internationalist

You Are The Judge

Issue 154

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CRIME | Case study

You are the judge
Courts of law take only limited account of ‘mitigating circumstances’.
Yet all kinds of influences contribute to a crime - influences which a
court would never consider. Here is your chance to look at a theft from a
range of different perspectives - and to pass sentence on the thief.

Illustration: Clive Offley The culprit (Shirley)
I shop-lift because my welfare cheque doesn’t last two weeks. I know stealing is illegal, but I don’t see why it’s wrong. If. as an unemployed person, I could get enough money to live decently, then I wouldn’t steal. But I don’t I give my Mum money for rent heating and food. She’s not rich, she can’t afford to keep me.

After all that I have no money left over for clothes, shoes or travel to job interviews. I’ve

been to 1 6 job interviews in the last three months, but I get nowhere. I’ve got no qualifications and so all I could do is work in a factory and they’re all closing down.

Why should I feel ashamed? Being unemployed’s not my fault. All I want is enough money to live decently and not like an animal. I wanted to get a Christmas presentfor my Mum: that’s why I stole a box of chocolates.


The store manager

The youngsters come in here, with time on their hands, and they get up to no good. I feel a bit sorry for them: there are no jobs, but that’s no excuse for stealing, is it?

I talked to a girl who had been caught stealing in the shop the other day and she told me that because this is one of a big chain of stores, it’s alright to steal from itl A lot of them think like that. I told her that this store would close if its profits dropped below 33 per cent, that everybody would be out of a job because of what people like her do - but she didn’t believe me. The kids who’ve never had jobs can’t understand that everything that appears on this shop’s counters has been made through somebody else’s sweat and paid for by our shareholders’ investment They don’t understand how human industry is behind every single thing in this shop. They think they’re entitled to have the things they see in my store because everyone else has got them.


The advertising copy-writer
I wrote the ad which said ‘Buy Black Gold chocolates - the touch of class that says you love someone’. Not one of my best slogans but maybe it worked on Shirley. You could say that she fell for my line. But it’s not my fault if people steal to satisfy the desires that my bylines create. That’s not my responsibility. My job is to increase sales. And I’m in favour of that People deserve to have a few creature comforts to see them through this world, and advertising lets them know what’s on offer. It shows them the latest and the best of everything. And there’s nothing wrong with offering people new ways to make themselves feel good, is there?


The mother

I’m Shirley’s mother, so I suppose I’m caught up in this how-do-you-do. Everybody - the police, the neighbours, the teachers and my own mum are all saying it’s my fault. They’re making me feel guilty. Yet I’ve always brought Shirley up to be honest and to respect the law, so I don’t think theVre being fair.

Since she was 12 she’s gone her own way and done her own thing. I don’t see much of herof at night-time, but then that’s only natural with any young person, isn’t it? She s got to

have her own friends and go out a bit I know she hasn’t got a job, but I’ve been with her down to the unemployment office and I know there’s nothing going.

She hasn’t got much money: I can’t afford to give her any out of my wage-packet That doesn’t excuse stealing, mind. But I do know how she feels. She’s a good girl really. You can understand it, can’tyou? - how could she hold her head up on Christmas Day without giving expensive presents like the rest of the family?


The store detective

I reported the case to the police. It’s true that I let off some of those I catch stealing: if they beg and plead (saying they’ll never do it again) and I think they’re honest, then I’ll let them go with a caution. But not the young ones. I’ve seen too many newspaper stories about these young hooligans to let them get away with it.

At least most shoplifters look ashamed. But not this girl. She didn’t even sound like she was sorry. Thank God she’s not my daughter, that’s all I can say.

The young don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong, so they should be made to learn. And girls should be told that their place is in the home. It’s only because the youth of today have got all these new-fangled ideas in their heads that they get into trouble. My daughters know that their place is to stay at home and keep the house on the money their husbands give them. At least they set a good example.


The friend

You could say it was my fault egging her on and all that. But she’s as old as me and we went into it together. I just happened to be stronger than her so I managed to wriggle out of the store detective’s grip when we were caught. It’s true we went into it together, and I suggested going out to lift some stuff, but you can’t blame me for all of it.

We work well together because Shirley looks normal, she’s got a lot of nerve, and she can act casual when the heat is on . . . she’s good at what she does. To me you’ve got to look at it professionally - as a proper job that you do to the highest standard you can. It’s no fault of mine that she messed it up this time. She was just unlucky, that’s all.


The social worker

I’m the social worker who’s been asked for a social enquiry report on this case. This is the report I wish I could give the court. ‘Shirley M. Johnson has no previous convictions. She is the classic unemployed young woman with a snowball in hell’s chance of finding legal employment. She comes from a respectable working-class background and has average academic attainments for someone from her background - i.e. none. She is not, however, stupid. She just had no interest in the kind of middle-class forms of ‘success’ the school offered her. This is understandable.

‘Shirley also comes from a one-parent family. The psychological theory given to me during my training would lead me to plead that the absence of a father figure in her background leads her to be socially maladjusted, and prone to anti-authoritarian behaviour. But I have been a social worker long enough to know that all kids like this need is enough money to live decently and a job which isn’t demeaning, mindless or flagrantly exploitative.’

I rest my case. I will not of course, say all this to the Judge. But I believe it.


The politician

According to our critics, unemployment causes crime. This attitude is thoroughly irresponsible and encourages criminal elements to continue their lawless activities, terrorising decent members of the community. Those who blame the unemployment problem for everything are simply showing their own

moral sloppiness or excusing their own idleness - the country is crying out for the businesses that the unemployed could create if they only got up off their backsides. And people who choose the criminal road should expect no mercy. This Party, at least, will never be soft on crime.

Here are the possible sentences that you could pass on Shirley. Which do you think fits her case?

1. Reform School
A ‘short, sharp shock’ of military style discipline might teach Shirley to adhere to the values of her society for fear of the punishments that follow if she does not. It might also teach her some tricks and harden her into a confirmed crook.

2. Probation
This may encourage her to be more responsible by making her report regularly to an experienced supervisor. But the supervisor is highly unlikely to come from the same deprived social background so that her/his experience may not be of much use.

3. Fine
Forcing Shirley to pay out part of every welfare cheque for two years will hit her hard - but will making her even poorer just drive her deeper into criminality?

4. Restitution
Making Shirley work stacking the shelves of the store she robbed might help her understand why she should not steal. But it might equally make her resent the business which benefits much more by her unpaid labour than it lost by her theft.

5. Community service
By weeding old folk’s garden or painting church halls Shirley might learn to help those less fortunate than herself. But, on the other hand, what do people with more wealth and privilege do to help her?

6. Acquittal
If you consider that Shirley is the victim of the crimes of exploitation and greed rather than their instigator, then you might feel this is the judgement you have to deliver. But would this be a licence for people to commit any crime they wanted with impunity?


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