I’m no expert on crime and prision policy but…STOP right there. Don’t need to go any further to realise that today’s jaunt into this territory by the political parties can only go in one of two directions – rehearsing well tried prejudice or conjouring up eye-catching initiatives. Either way, one suspects that Tony Cameron’s (retired Scottish Prison Service’s chief executive) intervention about prison numbers wasn’t going to interfere with the party political hooplah. Certainly the birch rod (for beating their own back) approach of the Conservatives is unlikely to impress.
But, I hear the refrain: Surely an instant ASBO will solve anti-social behaviour, keep the youth out of the court system and relieve pressure on the prison population. Oh yes. Oh yes – if only it was that simple.
The problem is not just in creating the ASBO, it’s also in enforcing it. If you create an exclusion zone or a curfew based on the instruction of a couple of coppers, how do you make it stick? Tagging? How do you demontrate the legitimacy of the order. Part of the due process of the court system is that at the end of the day everyone gets their day and there’s always an appeal process. If instant ASBOS (community protection orders) are to be like getting a ticket from a parking warden, then will there be a) enough enforcement officers – it’s the Liberal who want the extra 1,000 local community officers and b) enough imagination for them to know how to handle their new acronyms.
Small example from the world of traffic wardens: I put my car in for a service and got a courtesy car which then got three traffic tickets in three days parked in my usual permit holders parking space, in spite of the explanatory note on the windscreen. I asked a warden why, as she printed the ticket, she explained: Procedure! If “community” police officers, looking younger ever day, don’t have the imagination or confidence to know when to apply discretion then we’re all doomed I tell you.
Today’s Sun carries a piece about Billy Connolly’s support for a new National Service. I don’t go with that because teaching people a polarised “us and them” approach is too simplistic and then adding guns, knives and fear management as standard sounds like courting disater. Never-the-less I take the Big Yin’s argument that you need to do something with YOUTH not something to them. Instant ASBOs are about as close to resolving the causes of crime as…well…as the UK winning the war on terror (thanks Hilary!). If, as we’re told, people are bogged down in lives of hopelessness, poverty, unemployment, drugs etc. then no wonder THEY don’t buy into the heavily subsidised goodies the middle classes enjoy. Or less abrasively, no wonder they don’t buy into the law abiding creative adventure that will make Scotland it’s best.
Yup, it’s easy to criticise.
My best partial solution is not national service but International Development Service. I’m not putting this in my manifesto because I don’t have one and because at least I know I’m not an expert. But being put in a very foreign context helps you to think. With a broader horizon – maybe filled with the much greater misery and poverty of others – who knows what can happen. If Tony Cameron reckons it costs £40k a year to keep someone in prison, then take that money (as a voucher??!!) to fund an “Internship” in Malawi or Darfur or Somalia. Oh no doubt the worthies at the aid agencies would squeal, and right enough, if I was suggesting that they do the babysitting. But if the SPS/Police etc managed a programme that supplemented and complemented the work of DfID and the Aid Agencies then surely something good could come of it.