Ignoring lessons of history

Professor David Downes argues that harsh punishments have never deterred criminals
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By his proposals, Michael Howard not only embraces and inflames populist punitiveness, he ignores the main lesson of the history of penology: that harsh punishments do not deter. If they did there would have been no pickpocketing at the foot of public executions in the eighteenth century.

The United States is the main laboratory in which the savage limitations of this policy are most starkly revealed. A three-fold increase in the prison population over the past 20 years and the reintroduction of capital punishment in numerous states have yet to alter the fact that murder rates there remain 10 times higher than here. It is true that US crime rates stabilised in the 1980s and it may be that imprisoning one in every 200 Americans (one in four of all black males in certain areas) did make some impact on the crime rates. Yet the cost is horrendous and it has not reduced crime.

Overall, the impact of these measures is likely to make things worse, for victims who will face the risk of more intimidation and injury to prevent identification and arrest; for police, who will face more hardened and determined offenders, willing to take more risks to evade capture; and for prison officers and prisoners, who face more embittered long-termers in worsening conditions.

As the Lord Chief Justice has argued, the criminal justice system is in danger of massive distortion if it is forced into the role of a crime prevention machine.

Its true purpose is to prevent lynch law and to dispense justice when criminals are caught. It is because this government has so massively neglected the social, economic and institutional sources of crime that it is forced into so damaging an over-emphasis on the criminal justice system as its only weapon in crime control.

The speed and the force of the Lord Chief Justice's rejection of the whole rationale of these proposals shows how critical relations have now become between the government and the judiciary. Just as with policing, the Government now finds itself at odds with an institution of the utmost importance, because it is placing unrealistic and inconsistent demands on it.

8 The writer is Professor of Social Administration and a member of the Mannheim Centre for Criminal Justice at the London School of Economics.