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New Internationalist Issue 282


Simply - the punishment machine

Illustration by RICHARD SLYE

We are used to thinking of criminals as a tiny minority different from the rest of us. But, as unemployment and inequality soar, governments are investing in police and prisons as a way of dealing with a desperate and growing underclass. The NI dissects the powerful forces behind the crime-control industry.

Squeezing democracy
The traditional pro-police bias in the courts is becoming even more pronounced as defendants' rights are whittled away in the current law-and-order climate. High-tech policing as a means of social control widens the criminal net and narrows the rights of the uspect. Courts are clogged and prisons overcrowded. Mandatory sentences for certain crimes (drugs, use of firearms, multiple convictions) are increasing prison terms and narrowing court discretion. Legal aid to defend usually impoverished suspects is being cut back. The complex moral and philosophical issues involved with crime and punishment are ignored as the system 'processes' wrong-doers.

Crime panic
In an era of 'downsizing' in both industry and government there is a profound sense of public insecurity. Despite dropping or stagnant rates for most violent crimes (although an increase in poverty-related property crimes) sensationalistic media and opportunistic politicians have whipped up public hysteria about 'crime waves' and the 'soft' treatment of criminals. Crime panic often has a racial bias whether it is associated with Arabs in Toulon, West Indians in Birmingham, Gypsies in Eastern Europe or Afro-Americans in Georgia. Fear and repression march hand in hand with discrimination.

The security industry has become a major growth centre in modern post-industrial economies. Private police and security firms; privately run jails and reform schools; prison design and construction; the manufacture of elaborate security technologies (alarm systems, drug-testing, identification procedures, electronic imprisonment); the production and export of police weaponry and riot-control gear: all these provide employment and profit. The crime-control industry forms a domestic version of the military-industrial complex, with a growing stake in the public purse. The panic-fuelled war on crime provides needed jobs and grateful advocates.

Expanding the net
The vast majority of matters dealt with by the criminal-justice system are non-violent, often petty. Prostitution, drug-offences, non-payment of fines, car theft, social-security fraud, loitering, curfew violations, shop-lifting: all these often end in prison sentences (sometimes quite long ones). Criminal justice is being used to keep an increasingly desperate underclass from cheating to survive. The 'three strikes and you're out' legislation in some US states like California guarantees that many three-time (often petty) offenders will be taking up costly prison space for the rest of their lives. Russia and the US (and probably China) have the largest percentages of people in prison but some Southern countries like South Africa and Singapore are catching up.

The revolving door
More people going to jail means overcrowding in prisons so bad that even the semblance of rehabilitation is being abandoned. Cuts in family-support services, particularly those that protect abused children, ensure a steady stream of 'criminal' material. Prisons are in effect becoming 'schools for crime' in which young offenders graduate to much more serious criminal careers. The inmate culture in most prisons ensures that violent behaviour is needed to survive. Such behaviour leaves the prison with the inmate on release. Hard drug habits are also easy to come by behind bars. The notion that public safety can be guarded by simply 'locking them up' forgets that you may one day meet angry and vengeful ex-inmates on the street.

Social cleansing
Many countries in the Third World cannot afford to keep a large percentage of their underclass in prison - resources are too scarce and the poor too many. Arbitrary policing is the preferred way of dealing with a runaway crime problem. In Latin American countries like Colombia, Brazil and Guatemala this takes the form of 'social cleansing' whereby street youth, homosexuals, prostitutes or other undesirables are arbitrarily executed by police or private-security forces. Sometimes this is done at the behest of local merchants or other corporate clients. Underpaid police sometimes extort money from criminals, merchants and even victims of crime in order to make ends meet. Police often act and are regarded more as an army of occupation than as guarantors of public safety.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996 [image, unknown] NI Home Page[image, unknown] Issue 282 Contents

New Internationalist issue 282 magazine cover This article is from the August 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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