Reshaping the criminal justice system after the riots


Reshaping the criminal justice system after the riots

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Written by: Jon Burnett


Criminologist Jon Burnett is concerned about the long-term impact on policing and criminal justice of the government’s response to the riots and its use of ‘underclass’ theories.

And so the ‘social fightback’ has begun. This month’s riots and disorders were a wake-up call to Britain, according to the prime minister. Returning to his pre-election theme of ‘broken Britain’, he gave a speech to constituents in Oxford last week outlining the reasons behind the recent disorder, violence and pillaging, and how the government will respond. To paraphrase, the riots had nothing to with race, nothing to do with cuts or austerity measures, nothing to do with poverty, everything to do with behaviour. They were evidence of people with an ‘indifference to right and wrong’ and a ‘complete absence of self-restraint’. No context; only culture. Or lack of culture, to be more accurate: one reduced to a culture of dependency, stemming from broken families; a culture with a ‘twisted moral code’.

‘I don’t doubt that many of the rioters out last week have no father at home’, Cameron argued. ‘Perhaps they come from one of the neighbourhoods where it’s standard for children to have a mum and not a dad, where it’s normal for young men to grow up without a male role model, looking to the streets for their father figures, filled up with rage and anger’. There is a process of ‘moral hazard in our welfare system’, he continued, with ‘people thinking they can be as irresponsible as they like because the state will always bail them out’. ‘Rights without responsibilities’ were among the factors behind the riots; ‘Communities without control’.[1]

Re-invoking underclass theories

If such explanations seem familiar, it is because they echo discredited but politically influential theories, popularised in the early 1990s, about the existence of an urban underclass. A chief proponent of these theories, the political scientist Charles Murray, arrived in the UK in 1989 arguing that the underclass was already prevalent in the US, and described himself as a ‘visitor from a plague area come to see whether the disease is spreading’. History defined the members of the underclass as ‘”undeserving”, “unrespectable”, “depraved”, “debased”, “disreputable” or “feckless…”‘ said Murray – and he appeared to agree, arguing that they were completely different to the deserving poor as their poverty was behavioural. They chose their lifestyle. Their neighbourhoods were marked by ‘drugs, crime, illegitimacy, homelessness, drop-out from the job market, drop-out from school [and] casual violence’. Three factors served as early-warning signals for their existence: illegitimacy (single parent families), violent crime and unemployment; and these indicators, he claimed, provided proof that not only was the underclass beginning to grow in the UK, it could potentially become proportionally larger than in the US.[2] Theorists argued that most of its members in the US were black. Murray later argued in The Bell Curve that black people had a lower IQ than whites and, consequently, were exerting a downward pressure on the average IQ level throughout the country.[3] Crucially, a consensus was established that existing social policy strategies such as welfare provision were not only inadequate when responding to the poverty of the underclass, but were part of the problem. A new set of measures needed introducing.

Given the thrust of the ideas underpinning Cameron’s explanation for the riots then, it is pertinent that he has turned to ‘supercop’ William Bratton, the former New York Police Commissioner in the mid-1990s for a response. And his appointment of Bratton as a crime adviser is entirely consistent with a government seeking to reshape criminal justice strategies in order to police a supposed underclass; for when a radical method of confronting the ‘underclass’ was called for in the US, Bratton provided it. He did so, famously, by implementing a zero tolerance policing strategy which, in effect, utilised the criminal justice system to replace the social provisions rolled back by neoliberalism. Zero tolerance policing is based on the ‘broken windows’ thesis, which argues that visible signs of incivility escalate into hotbeds of violence. Broken windows turn into broken communities. As the following frequently quoted passage from the broken windows thesis remarks: ‘A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers’.[4] The response was to crack down hard and immediately on minor offences, minor infringements and signifiers of potential harm. One of Bratton’s first acts in New York, reportedly, was to forcibly remove a man begging from a subway. The essence of the strategy was that if the underclass was the outcome of breakdowns in community control, broken windows was the process through which this happened.

The myths and costs of zero tolerance policing

Bratton is widely credited with a massive drop in murder rates, gang violence and other offences more generally in New York when he was commissioner. At best, these claims are misleading; at worst they are fallacies. Crime rates fell in many other US cities in this same period, and many of these cities had radically different policing styles. A reduction in unemployment, reduced crack cocaine use, a stabilising drugs trade and community-based interventions have been suggested as more significant factors related to the reduced crime rate in New York.[5] What is clearer is that the introduction of zero tolerance policing methods encouraged officers to target particular groups of people on a substantial scale and gave tacit consent for the police to routinely transgress procedural rules in a purge of New York’s streets. In 1994, youth arrests increased by 78,000. A year later 280 young people were being jailed each day in ‘quality of life’ sweeps by the New York Police Department, the vast majority for minor offences such as drinking alcohol in public, ‘loitering’ or not having correct identification documents. Widespread reports of police harassment of black and Latino communities began to circulate. Between 1994 and 1997 officially recorded complaints about discourtesy, excessive force and abuse increased by 62 per cent. When black and Latino communities complained about Bratton’s policing style, his response was simply ‘That’s too damn bad’.[6]

These realities raise questions about Bratton’s recent appeals for the importance of police accountability. And whilst his policing strategy asserts a form of crackdown on low-level incivilities and disorder on the one hand, on the other he advocates a doctrine of ‘escalating force’ in conjunction with zero tolerance methods. In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph he argued that the police need ‘a lot of arrows in the quiver’. ‘You want the criminal element to fear them’, he suggested, ‘fear their ability to interrupt their own ability to carry out criminal behaviour, and arrest and prosecute and incarcerate them’.[7]

This gives some indication as to why he has been appointed as Cameron’s crime adviser in the wake of England’s riots. As an increasing number of bodies express concerns about the government’s punitive response, Cameron is seeking out voices which will legitimise attempts to restructure the criminal justice system and circumvent due process where this sets limits on state power; reinterpret existing criminal justice powers, applying them en masse where this is applicable; utilise social policy as an outpost of the criminal justice system and expand police powers to confront the mobilisation of a British ‘underclass’.

Already, the roots of this restructuring are taking hold, partly through knee-jerk responses to the riots; partly through more carefully thought out interventions which were already mooted prior to this month’s violence. Witness, for example, the advice for magistrates to disregard existing sentencing guidelines when processing offenders; the drive to ‘name and shame’ rioters despite this being discouraged in existing case law; the proposals to evict families in social housing whose children have been involved in the disorder; to use anti-social behaviour orders (particularly in Manchester) to prevent rioters from re-entering certain areas; to take away offenders’ property; to clear the streets and impose collective curfews on young people; to withdraw benefits from rioters who avoid custodial sentences; to use water cannons; to free the criminal justice system from the restraints of human rights legislation.

It is telling, of course, that this restructuring is being achieved, in part, by drawing on and reinterpreting the mass expansion of criminal justice powers (through ASBOs, for example) that have already been put in place by the previous government: a government which oversaw the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility and a criminal justice strategy that saw more young people imprisoned than in any other country in western Europe. But at the same time, through drawing on discredited underclass theories and turning to arrest practices based on removing targeted individuals from public spaces, a framework is being constructed for an intensifying criminal justice strategy which may remain in place way beyond the immediate aftermath of this month’s violence.

Related links

Read an IRR News story: Resisting the Bratton brand: lessons from the US


References: [1] David Cameron, 'We are all in this together', Speech in Witney (15 August 2011). [2] Charles Murray, 'The emerging British underclass', in Charles Murray and the underclass: the developing debate (London, Institute of Economic Affairs in association with the Sunday Times, 1996), pp. 23-52. [3] Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: intelligence and class structure in American life (New York, Free Press, 1996). [4] James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, 'Broken windows: the police and neighborhood safety', The Atlantic Monthly (March, 1982), pp. 29-37. [5] Jeffrey Reiman and Paul Leighton, The rich get richer and the poor get prison: ideology, class and criminal justice, Ninth Edition (New York, Pearson, 2009). [6] Ibid; Jamilah King, 'How the U.S. is still recovering from 'supercop' Bill Bratton's policing', Colorlines (17 August 2011). [7] Jon Swaine and James Kirkup, 'UK riots: young thugs 'should fear the police', says David Cameron's new crime advisor', Daily Telegraph (12 August 2011).


The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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