Letter: Learning the lessons of criminal behaviour

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The Independent Online
Sir: As every schoolboy knows, Sir Robert Peel made his name as a great reforming Home Secretary by reforming prisons and establishing the Metropolitan Police Force. The same schoolboys also know that he carried out major reforms of the criminal law which are pertinent to current concerns.

In the 1820s crime was on the increase, yet governments had introduced tougher and tougher punishments until nearly 100 crimes carried the death penalty. As Peel and his advisers spotted, this meant that the punishment for murder and the punishment for robbery were exactly the same. The result was an increasing tendency for thieves to murder their victims and any other possible witnesses that got in their way.

Peel's remedy was to reduce capital offences drastically. The thief might get a spell in prison, but only the murderer (or arsonist or traitor) was executed. The result was a significant drop in violent crime for which Peel is rightly praised.

Present-day liberals who oppose the death penalty often continue to praise Peel as a reformer, but in doing so they entirely miss the point of Peel's great reforms. Since hanging was abolished, the punishments for robbery and murder are once again the same, as they were in the 1820s. The result is the same: an increasing tendency for criminals to murder their victims and any other witnesses, including policemen who try to stop them. The answer is not to arm the police: it is surely to learn the obvious lesson from Sir Robert and restore the differential between robbery and murder, and there is only one way in which that can be done.

Yours faithfully,

G. F. DUNKIN

Headmaster

The Hulme Grammar School

Oldham

20 May

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