The Way We Live: Howard's hard line on crime wins public backing: Independent/NOP survey reveals support for increased police powers and hostility to lenient sentences

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MICHAEL HOWARD, the Home Secretary, is either closely in touch with the public mood, at least among elderly Conservative working-class voters, or the nation has been so influenced by repeated government initiatives as to believe that the country needs a hard line on law and order.

The Independent/NOP poll on crime and punishment reveals a consistently tough approach that contrasts markedly with the softening of attitudes reported from the first part of the poll yesterday. But despite the hard line on crime and prisons, almost one-third of people questioned in the poll favoured the decriminalisation of marijuana.

The poll comes after an unprecedented period of increases in crime (close to doubling in 10 years with rises of 17 per cent and 16 per cent in 1990 and 1991) that are certain to have influenced the responses. Support for the Government's stance is concentrated in poorer social classes, with those recorded as C2s consistently outnumbering ABs in hard-line attitudes. What is unclear is the extent to which their views are influenced by tabloid newspapers and the increasing number of crime reconstructions on television.

Mr Howard will draw comfort from the fact that the survey shows that 88 per cent believe the police should be given more powers, perhaps a reflection of the debate about effectiveness, and that a lack of discipline in schools and the home and a lack of respect for authority are seen by more than 90 per cent as responsible for crime.

Poverty and poor housing were ranked lower - 79 per cent saw them as an important cause of crime. However, 83 per cent of Labour voters took this view, against 73 per cent of Conservatives. High unemployment ranks higher: 87 per cent took this view, with a spread across the political divide.

When asked about the importance of different reasons for sending people to prison, 93 per cent said it was to show public disapproval of serious crime; 86 per cent said it was to make criminals suffer and 81 per cent said it was to stop criminals committing further offences. The bigger majorities in favour of the more retributive attitudes are among the old, C2s and Conservatives; 69 per cent see prison as a means of reforming criminals, a drop from 73 per cent since the same question was asked in 1985. This may be because of increased awareness that for many people, prison encourages recidivism.

The hard line accords with Mr Howard's 27-point agenda to defeat crime and his stance that 'prison works' - although it is not clear whether he means as a punishment or as a deterrent, where he is at odds with the statistical evidence.

Prison reform groups, lawyers and Lord Woolf, the law lord, who have criticised these and other law- and-order policies, must consider whether they are out of step with the wider population.

The view on the death penalty is consistent with the hard line: 70 per cent agreed that it was the most appropriate penalty for some crimes, with 13 per cent definitely opposing the idea.

Despite the recent debate initiated by some senior police officers over controlled decriminalisation of drugs, 88 per cent believe it should remain an offence to take hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. There are only minor differences across age or social class, with 88 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 saying it should remain a crime. However, it may be that the reason why a radical approach is needed (because existing policies have failed) has yet to imprint itself upon the population.

But fewer people maintain the same view on marijuana: almost one-third of the population, 29 per cent, and a high proportion of those from social classes A and B (40 per cent) support the idea that soft drugs such as marijuana should be decriminalised, a much higher figure than polls during the peak years of cannabis consumption in the late Sixties and early Seventies; 64 per cent believe possession should remain a criminal offence.

David Downes, Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics, said attitudes on crime were slow to change. 'People have a strong fear of crime and may feel unprotected.'

Professor Downes agreed with those, including a former senior official at the Home Office, who believed that Douglas Hurd's tenure as Home Secretary was a golden era in which prison was viewed as an expensive and bad way of dealing with crime, except for the most serious of crimes. Professor Downes echoed the perception of liberal criminologists and penal reformers: 'That view has now been totally reversed.'

Mike Goodman, director of Release, the drugs advice organisation, said that the poll's verdict on marijuana would put pressure on the Government to re-examine the issue.

'I am greatly encouraged but not surprised. There has been a sea change in attitudes in the last couple of years: it is now longer a fringe matter. Support for decriminalisation by the Independent and other newspapers has influenced opinion among the middle classes.'

John Smith, Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said the real causes of crime were complex and could not be expressed in simplified answers. The concerns of many people were that criminals were not being caught, convicted and punished and the Government's proposals went some way to dealing with the issue. Punishment had to deter and reform criminals as well as satisfy victims, otherwise it was not truly effective.

Leading article, page 17

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