One of the principles I grew up with was that “the punishment should match the crime” so it came as a surprise to me how some offences are dealt with when I watched an episode of “The Lock Up” on BBC3. The case I saw didn’t just shock me, it made me re-examine my whole view of how the UK treats some categories of crime. UK Courts are having to hand out completely stupid sentences that don’t just break the principle, they actually make it more likely the offender will reoffend!
The episode I saw (the fourth of eight) showed a typical night shift at a station in the Humberside Police force. One of the miscreants brought in for an overnight stay in the cells before his morning in front of the beak was a heroin addict who stole about £15 worth of cheese from Sainsbury’s, plus some meat. He explained he needed to steal in order to pay for his habit, and had no other way of buying his drugs other than through stealing.
In the morning, he went to Court and was fined £100 for each theft, plus costs. That must be the not only the least imaginative sentence of any I could imagine, but also the least appropriate in the circumstances, and certainly the least effective. He’s a drug addict. He stole the cheese because he had no money. So they fine him?
Sgt Peter Swann, Custody Sergeant, said that the costs to the Police Force of dealing with such a case were out of all proportion to the crime. A Doctor’s bill of about £80, together with £2 to £3 for breakfast, the cost of cleaning his cell, the wages for the police, the time taken by the court, all these things together would add up to far more than the £15 worth of cheese stolen. Many times more.
Then there’s the fine. Will he pay it? How can he pay it? When he doesn’t pay it, that’ll be more Police time, more court time, more costs – and then he’ll be sent off to prison for non-payment which in 2005/06 cost the UK taxpayer more than £32,000 per inmate per year. £88 per day. That’s more than the average wage!
So, what was the root cause of this crime? Heroin addiction. Was the man really a thief? Only to feed his habit – if he had no habit, or the habit was treated some other way, he wouldn’t be out there stealing. That would then save Police time and money, Court time and money, and Prison time and money.
Fining someone with no money is as effective as threatening to execute a suicide bomber: it won’t make a difference. Imprisoning someone for not paying a fine when they are an addict doesn’t stop them reoffending; doesn’t stop their addiction; and doesn’t benefit society.
So what can we do? Obviously, we have to address the drug problem.
Sending addicts to standard prison is a non-answer, they can get drugs illegally in prison these days, and when they come out they reoffend. Pushing the supply of heroin to criminal gangs is also a non-answer. Given the power of the monopoly supplier, these criminals manipulate the price to make huge (and untaxed) profits, and have an incentive to seek to create new addicts constantly. They also engage in turf wars with each other to maintain their local monopolies, and are responsible for increasing levels of knife and gun crime in areas in which they operate.
So far, the drug war has been fought as if it were essentially nothing other than smuggling. But it is far more than this: it’s a business, often a multinational business, and it’s worth billions of pounds per year. To fight it, you need to think outside of the box, think like a business at war with a competitor.
How does one company sell more product than the next one? It reduces prices. In fact, as we have seen with the Chinese economy, if you sell things cheaply enough you take away the Oxygen of your competitors whose own industries slowly wither and die. The Chinese haven’t invaded anyone (since Tibet in 1947) and they haven’t declared war on anyone directly either – yet they are slowly killing off American businesses and now expanding worldwide.
Apply this strategy to UK Heroin and Drugs plc and you will reduce criminal supply, reduce addiction, and thereby reduce crime. If addicts can feed their habit in tightly controlled government run establishments, supervised by Doctors, and given not enough to get high, but enough to get rid of the withdrawal symptoms they will no longer need to steal. If there are no heroin buyers, the number of criminal pushers will fall, and the number of heroin addicts will reduce. Providing the drug in controlled environments will reduce the spread of illnesses such as HIV and Hepatitis, and drug users will not spread them in society so easily.
Crime figures will markedly improve, with thefts of all varieties falling in numbers (clearly you’ll still have to deal with alcohol fueled crime, but that’s a different issue). Because there will be fewer crimes, the Police, the Courts and the Prison system will save money. The UK prison system alone costs about £2.2 billion per year to run. Ask any policeman what he thinks the causes of crime are and chances are he’ll put “drugs and alcohol” very high up on his list.
At the moment we aren’t addressing the real issues, we’re addressing the symptoms and the side effects. So, maybe it’s time for me to change my principle from what it was, to “The punishment should fit the cause of the crime”. Doctors don’t treat brain tumours with headache pills, and shaking a crying baby only makes things worse.
Pipedream? No, reality: in Switzerland this anti-drugs policy is both extremely effective as well as cost-effective. Crime is down, costs are down, and although addiction is still present, it is reducing.
“• The income from illegal and semi-illegal activities decreased dramatically (10% as opposed to 69% originally).
“• Both the number of offenders and the number of criminal offenses decreased by about 60% during the first six months of treatment
Isn’t it time the UK began thinking outside of the box too?