• The crime figures look great but they only tell part of the story

    For the first time I'm including hyperlinks to references in the body of the text. Unfortunately, the system doesn't allow for these to open in a new window so you'll have to use your back button when you open them. If you don't like this method of linking, let me know and I'll go back to the old system.

    In the UK and other western countries, governments are congratulating themselves on falling crime figures. But do the statistics tell the whole story?

    In July 2013, the UK's Office for National Statistics announced that there had been a seven per cent decrease in the number of crimes reported to the police in England and Wales.

    An even bigger fall in crime – nine per cent – was recorded by the Crime Survey of England and Wales, which asks a representative sample of households whether they have been victims of crime.

    UK Home Secretary Theresa May was cock-a-hoop, saying that a decision by the Government to cut police funding ? and, therefore, the number of police officers in England and Wales ? had been vindicated.

    England and Wales were safer than they had been for decades, she declared.

    But is the Government measuring the right things? Should it content itself with looking only at the number of crimes which have been committed? Or should we all be looking at the magnitude of crime; the impact that crimes, regardless of their number, are having on society?

    Shortly after the crime statistics were announced, a less re-assuring set of figures were published by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism which showed that the the police were becoming slower to respond to 999 calls, with the reduction in police numbers being blamed.

    Some forces were taking 15 per cent longer to respond and one had increased its target for responding from 10 minutes to 15 minutes – a 30 per cent increase.

    In a case of domestic abuse, how much more damage can an abuser do to their victim in the extra five minutes which it now takes that force to respond? How much more work by way of treating the victim is caused to the hospital accident and emergency unit to which are admitted and which, like other units throughout the country, is probably already desperately over-stretched? Could the extra work caused by the abuse victim lead to loss of life of another, waiting patient?

    None of this is being measured.

    Shop owners could lose their livelihoods

    Smuggling might be considered a victimless crime but tell that to corner shop owners around the country and their families who reckon they could lose their livelihoods because of it.

    The Tobacco Retailers' Alliance which is a trade association representing about 26,000 independent shops, says that one in six corner shops is under the threat of closure from the combined effects of cross-border shopping and tobacco smuggling, up from one in eight in the previous year.

    A survey of its members also showed that 40 per cent of them had considered reducing staff because of the problem.

    The Alliance's spokeswoman, Debbie Corris, who is herself a shopkeeper, said: "These results show that tobacco smuggling is not only a threat to the livelihoods of independent retailers but one that continues to worsen. The high level of tax on tobacco means that a smuggler selling at half the price I charge will make more money selling his tobacco here than almost anywhere else in the EU."

    But neither shop owners or staff will ever appear in the figures as victims of crime even if they lose their jobs and businesses as a result of smugglers.

    And at a time when high streets have seen shop closure after shop closure as a result of austerity, they can ill-afford any further outlets putting up the shutters lest these streets are deserted by shoppers and get taken over by anti-social elements, with all the social costs that brings (a fate which overtook a recently closed police station).

    Revenue to the Government is lost as well, of course. And with, according to a BBC story, 520 children becoming new smokers every day, there is vast young market that the smugglers might choose to exploit, unhindered by any Government rules aimed at curbing smoking. If, indeed, they are not already doing so.

    Smuggling, therefore, can be a high-magnitude crime.

    Figures fail to catch new types of crime

    An increasing number of criminologists are casting doubt on the value of conventional crime figures.

    One of them is Prof Marian FitzGerald, who told the UK's Guardian newspaper that the figures fail to capture new types of property crime, such as online fraud, because these are seldom reported.

    Her views were echoed by two professors from Teesside University, Simon Winlow and Steve Hall, who told the UK's Observer newspaper that a new approach to recording crime was needed.

    Said Prof Hall: "It is ridiculous for criminologists to argue that, because we are seeing statistical falls in crime, the world is becoming a nicer place and that our society is becoming more civilised and humane.

    "Criminal markets are changing in way that are leaving traditional policing methods trailing in the dust."

    Fraud is, indeed, bucking the crime-number trend, with a 27 per cent increase recorded by the police in England and Wales.

    And while a burglar might escape from a family home with a couple of thousand pounds worth of stolen goods – probably insured – a fraudster can cause complete financial ruin with no hope of compensation.

    A few days after the latest crime figures were announced with a flourish, the UK's Daily Mail newspaper published a story about three con men who had been operating a so-called 'boilerhouse scam', persuading people to buy shares in companies which didn't exist.

    Said the paper: "Marriages broke up, professionals were forced to go back to work after losing all their savings and one distraught man killed himself after being cheated out of £200,000."

    The trio, it explained, cheated 2,300 people out of £83 million.

    These were crimes, clearly, of enormous magnitude.

    Just three among countless fraudsters

    And these criminals were just three among countless fraudsters operating at all levels. Here are just a few headlines gathered from newspapers around the UK recently.

    Fraud trio are locked up after conning frail and elderly customers – from the Teesside Gazette

    Con artists impersonating police officers in new scam – from the Harborough Mail

    25 per cent of adults at risk of new 'vishing' phone con which tricks victims into giving details to fraudsters who claim to be their bank – from the Daily Mail

    Fraudster who preyed on debt victims faces jail – from Devon 24

    Cumbria police warn public to be aware of computer fraud – from the Westmoreland Gazette

    Fraudster jailed after conning Take That fans into paying for Wembley gig tickets which didn't exist in £65,000 travel agency scam - the Daily Mail

    Sutton Coldfield travel conman Alan Steel jailed for taking £140,000 from OAPs – from the Birmingham Mail

    Frail Wallington pensioner stung in sewer pipe scam – from This Is Local London

    Warnings of scam where con artists pretend to be from the fraud protection unit – from the Manchester Evening News

    Beware the courier scam – an express way to lose your money – from The Guardian

    A leading police officer, Manchester Chief Constable Sir Peter Fahy has admitted that rising fraud represented a problem for his force at a time of falling budgets.

    You're probably too smart to be caught out by fraudsters like these. Even so, if you're a UK resident, you may well be a victim of fraud even if you don't realise it.

    According to the Association of British Insurers insurance fraud now adds, on average, an extra £50 a year to the annual insurance bill for every UK policy holder.

    But you'll never appear in those official figures which confidently show the number of victims going down.

    See also Bored? Listless? Confound rapacious international criminals that law enforcement cannot your spare time and Why cigs plan might not be all white on the night

  • Accused, condemned and innocent... the hidden victims of sex crime furores

    The post below was written by Dr Ros Burnett, senior research associate at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford, and is reproduced by kind permission of The Justice Gap where it first appeared (and which is well worth a visit).

    Consider these two distinct wrongs, with largely different sets of victims – but which share some common ground. One is: being sexually or violently assaulted, especially by someone more powerful than you. The other is: being wrongly accused and judged as someone who has done such a terrible deed. Each of these experiences is likely to be seriously traumatic and have possibly lifelong damaging effects.

    The common ground is the heinous deed in question. Of course, the exact nature and level is subject to considerable variation, with corresponding differences in consequences. At the mildest end – for example, (a) being inappropriately touched; (b) being falsely called a paedophile when no-one believes it – it is possible to over-react and overstate the wrong that has been done.

    Step up the seriousness a little bit, and we begin to get troubling outcomes; and the most extreme levels – for example, (a) forcing a child or adult to engage in sexual acts; (b) imprisoning an innocent person found guilty of those crimes – are among the worst experiences that can be inflicted on human beings.

    Zero-sum game

    While both forms of victimisation are supported by distinct professional groups and organisations,being falsely accused and being abused are two sides of the same coin. Both types of victim need to have their experiences taken seriously and believed. And that is feasible, until we start talking about the same incident – in which case it becomes a zero-sum game. Both claims can’t be true.

    Hence, supporters of each are likely to be oppositional. Because this type of alleged incident would not typically be witnessed nor leave behind a crime scene or objective evidence, and what people say happened or didn’t happen becomes all-important, mistakes of judgement are likely to be made.

    Campaigners for innocence groups may be unintentionally supporting some who are not innocent. Campaigners for victims of child abuse and rape may be unintentionally supporting some who have erroneously or vengefully made a false (untrue) accusation.

    There are two types of errors here, which are analogous to types of errors anticipated in experimental science and statistical probability models.

    Research begins with a hypothesis; likewise, when someone is arrested, the police hypothesise that the individual may have committed a crime. The null hypothesis in experimental science is that the theoretical hypothesis does not apply. In the justice process the null hypothesis is the presumption of innocence.

    False positives, false negatives

    In the absence of absolute proof, statistical probability tests are used in science to reject the null hypothesis; and in judicial systems it has to be rejected beyond a ‘reasonable doubt’. Errors can occur in both cases if some crucial evidence is missing or when a misjudgement is made in evaluating the existing evidence.

    Therefore the initial hypothesis may be accepted as significant when it is not; and, in the case of a trial, the null hypothesis of innocence may be rejected for the same reasons and an innocent person found guilty. In the language of statistics, this is a ‘false positive’ or a type I error.

    Similarly, missing evidence or mistakes of judgement can result in errors in the other direction with a guilty person being acquitted; or with the hypothesis in a scientific experiment being abandoned even though the study was on to something. This second type of error is known as a ‘false negative’ or type II error.

    "Understandably, campaigners for each of these causes will not want doubts to risk adulterating their cause. Single cases of mistakes can be highly publicised and public opinion seems prone to over-generalisation. The temptation is to ignore false positives and false negatives so as not to throw doubt on those genuine cases.

    So errors can be made on either side. I say ‘sides’ but these are like neighbouring communities who mostly close their eyes against each other, but when crossing paths have confrontations to challenge each other’s truth. Ironically, this absolutism, rather than strengthening each case, surely weakens it – because such black and white thinking is an enemy to truth and rationality.

    When there is no forensic proof, no proof that a crime has even occurred, as in so-called historical cases, sometimes we simply cannot ever categorically establish that we are right.

    That doesn’t mean we should relinquish the effort to investigate each case impartially and fully.

    We are at a moment in time, though, when child protection and supporters of rape victims may not see the need for or value of such moderation. From the moral high ground of outrage against abuse of women and children, any questioning of assumptions can be taken as an affront.

    Shocking times

    These are shocking times. Child abuse and rape and sexual harassment are endemic, and we’ve only recently woken up to that or been able to acknowledge its prevalence... the care homes scandal in the 1990s, followed closely by revelations of extensive child abuse by priests, the Soham murders by a school employee, abuse of vulnerable people in nursing homes and hospitals, and the Savile scandal and numerous other claims of historical child abuse.

    No wonder there is a now a sense of collective guilt, an urge to make recompense by never again disbelieving people who claim abuse and a determination not to allow the same mistakes to occur again. That means no more cover-ups, no more denials, no more suggestion that anyone could be lying or wrong. In consequence, any doubts about the veracity of abuse claims now seem wrong.

    In that case, what hope for the falsely accused? If the default belief is that anyone claiming to be a victim of abuse is indeed a victim, the denial by the accused is not only a lie, it is tantamount to a further offence adding to the suffering of the accuser. Indeed, to consider the plight of the wrongly accused, or to be seen as concerned about such an outcome, may seem inappropriate – that’s if it is even allowed that someone accused of rape or historical child abuse could be innocent.

    More than a willingness to err on the side of type I errors in bringing a guilty verdict, there is increasingly an unwillingness to recognise that such errors can be made. The accuser is unquestionably a victim of abuse.

    Mistake of incredulity

    The mistake in the past has been one of incredulity. Abused children were told no-one would believe them and that things would only be worse for them if they spoke up. Women who were raped were not believed when they complained, and the tendency to blame them or deny that rape had occurred and call them liars added to their suffering.

    Now we all know better, and in place of the denial is a corrective to have learned the lessons from the past, never to make it again, which means not questioning the accuracy of claims.

    As well as correcting the past by a default belief that allegations of abuse are true, we are now convinced of the commonness of such kinds of abuse; that it is endemic in some professions and that there is indeed a paedophile on every corner who would act on those impulses if left alone with a child.

    No-one would question the need to make every effort to prevent child abuse from occurring as far as is humanly possible. If there had to be a trade off between different categories of possible victims, it seems right to prioritise children.

    Our compassion and sense of moral outrage can’t be reserved only for children though. Some plights for adults are every bit as intolerable: for example, lengthy imprisonment of people who haven’t committed any crime.

    For anyone who might think that is a price worth paying to redress the evil of child abuse, then consider this. The children of people who are falsely accused of child abuse and sexual crimes do themselves become victims of a form of child abuse – not by their innocent parents, but by others who condemn and hate their presumed guilty parent.

    The revulsion and hostility against sexual crimes and child abuse is visited upon their families. Their children are forced to imagine their parent committing those deeds, to bear the insults of their school friends, and the loss of their normal relationship with that parent now imprisoned, perhaps to choose between loyalty to that parent and the company of their peers.

    When a father or mother is imprisoned as a ‘nonce’, guilty or innocent, no child is likely to recover from that.

    Dr Burnett is an author whose books include include Joined-up Youth Justice and Where Next for Criminal Justice? She is a research consultant to FACT (Falsely Accused Carers, Teachers and other professionals) and an associate editor of the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology.

  • Could this 'crime prevention' research become an affront to justice?

    The idea of taking action against individuals who might commit serious, violent crime – but have not yet done so – is not a new one.

    Until recently, courts in England and Wales were able to pass what were known as indefinite prison sentences on certain violent offenders. Individuals who were subject to an indefinite sentence could not be released until a parole board was satisfied that they no longer presented a danger to the public.

    However, a lack of resources within the Prison Service meant many indefinite prisoners were denied access to rehabilitation programmes, leaving thousands of them languishing with no prospect of release because parole boards had no evidence on which to act.

    The Prison Reform Trust, a campaigning group, commented: “It is shaming to have so many people locked up in our prisons not for what they have done but for what they might do in the future.

    “Many of these prisoners are condemned to years of uncertainty during which time they must somehow prove, from the confines of a bleak, overcrowded jail, that they no longer present a risk to the public.”

    In 2012, European judges ruled that the sentences breached prisoners’ human rights.

    Indefinite sentences had been under Governmental review anyway and have now been scrapped. However, anyone who received an indefinite sentence prior to their abolition must serve it out.

    In 1999, UK Home Secretary Jack Straw attempted to go much further and pass legislation under which people identified as psychopaths could be detained for the safety of the public, whether or not they had been charged with any offence at all.

    But the proposed new law foundered in the face of opposition from medical experts and mental health charities, who said it was difficult to diagnose psychopathy accurately, and from campaigning organisations such as the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, who said that locking up people who had not offended would be “a bridge too far”.

    In 2007, the UK Government suggested that checks should be made on all children to see whether they might develop criminal tendencies. But this proposal, too, ran into the sands.

    None of this, however, has checked the pace of research into how the criminals of tomorrow might be identified today.

    An earlier post on this blog looked at the work of Adam Raine, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, which he described in a speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science about how biological factors could play a part in criminality.

    He explained how a neural abnormality in the limbic portion of the brain had been identified which occurred in the first six months of life and was linked to anti-social behaviour.

    “Individuals with this neural abnormality are more psychopathic, they are more anti-social, they commit more crimes than individuals who lack this limbic abnormality,” he said.

    Then there was the discovery of the so-called ‘warrior gene’. Its scientific name is MAOA-L and it’s a defective variant of a gene called MAOA.

    MNOA helps regulate brain chemistry by producing an enzyme called monoamine oxidase A. MNOA-L also produces this enzyme but in much lower quantities.

    Researchers studying a large Dutch family whose male members were extraordinarily violent found the men were all deficient in this enzyme. Some other research – into different people – found the same thing, which led to the suggestion that the ‘warrior gene’ was responsible for aggression and associated violent criminal behaviour.

    Further research, however, showed that the gene was most commonly found in people of Chinese decent – it suggested that 77 per cent of these possessed it – who are not noticeably any more aggressive, as a group, than Caucasians, of whom only 34 per cent had the gene. (It was also found in 56 per cent of New Zealand Maori men, who were noted historically as fearless warriors – hence, its name.)

    This suggested that environmental factors moderated the effects (if any) that the gene has.

    Among more recent studies is work carried out by Pennsylvania University Professor Richard Berk, who gathered data about more than 60,000 crimes, such as the criminal record of the offender and the geographical location of the offence, to identify predictors of future criminality.

    The result was a piece of software which some US cities are using to indicate which offenders on probation or parole are most likely to go on to commit murder so that the intensity of their supervision can be appropriately adjusted.

    Prof Berk told the US ABC News network: “People assume that, if someone murdered, then they will murder in the future.

    “But what really matters is what that person did as a young individual. If they committed armed robbery at age 14, that’s a good predictor. If they committed the same crime at age 30, that doesn’t predict very much.”

    The software – or a variant of it – has also been considered as a tool for setting bail levels and conditions.

    So the hunt to find a way of identifying the criminals of the future has met with limited success at best. But it’s not likely to stop here.

    And if it is ever successful, an answer will have to be found to the question: is it morally right for the criminal justice system to take coercive action of any sort against an individual who is likely to commit an offence at some point but who has done nothing yet?

    And – who knows – may never do so, regardless of the predictors?

  • Digital prophets of crime proliferate

    “Good evening. Here is the local crime forecast for the next 24 hours.

    “A wave of burglaries is expected to cross the city’s southern suburbs later this evening but these will clear away before dawn. Further light break-ins may occur early tomorrow afternoon but these should be confined to garden sheds and other outbuildings.

    “Vehicle crimes are expected to arrive from the west later this evening and may persist for some hours.

    “Central districts will experience heavy violence around midnight, possibly accompanied by weapon-use but this is unlikely to last more than two hours. There may be sporadic robberies tomorrow morning.”

    This is not the sort of forecast you’re likely to see on the television any time soon. But the technology to produce something like it exists and could be coming to a town near you – if it hasn’t already arrived.

    Crime prediction is becoming big business thanks to the development of computer programs which crunch huge amounts of data to prophesy where and when crime will break out.

    One of these programs, called PredPol, uses an algorithm that turns mounds of crime data – times, dates, places – into predictions about where and when crimes will occur in the immediate future. Police can then be deployed accordingly, either to deter crime by visible patrolling or to operate more discretely in order to get arrests.

    Twenty seven per cent fall in burglary

    When it was trialled in the US city of Santa Cruz, burglaries dropped by 27 per cent in a year, while in a Los Angeles division where it was rolled out they fell by 26 per cent, according to an article on the US website

    It also frees up the police’s human crime analysts from tasking patrol officers to working on other important duties, such as building intelligence on drug networks, the article points out.

    Although PredPol’s use has so far been restricted to predicting property crimes, there are plans to develop it to counter some violent crimes as well.

    In the UK, the program is currently being trialled by Kent Police

    Also being trialled in the UK, according to The Observer newspaper, is a predictive programme developed by IBM called CRUSH (Criminal Reduction Utilising Statistical History) which incorporates in its calculations not only crime data but offender behaviour profiles and weather forecasts.

    Operator can track habits, routines and friends

    These types of programmes have attracted no controversy. The same is not true of a different sort of program, called RIOT (short for Rapid Information Overlay Technology), which can ‘mine’ huge amounts of information about an individual from social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

    It enables an operator to track someone’s movements, obtain pictures of them, identify their habits and personal routines – hour by hour, sometimes – and learn about their friends and associates.

    You can see a demonstration of how it works on a video made by RIOT’s manufacturer and obtained by the UK newspaper The Guardian, here

    Although it is designed for use in the field of national security, there seems no reason why it should not be used to combat everyday criminals.

    The manufacturer says it has not been sold to any clients but Nick Pickles, of the pressure group Big Brother Watch, told the UK newspaper The Metro: “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Government and companies in Britain are looking at it.”

    ‘Greatest challenge to civil liberties’

    Campaigners, the newspaper said, had described RIOT as “the greatest challenge to civil liberties and digital freedom of our age”.

    In 2012, the FBI asked contractors for ideas on how to develop a system to mine online social networking sites for information which could alert the agency to emerging security threats or violations of federal law.

    The move drew immediate criticism. Gus Hosein, chief executive of the London-based pressure group Privacy International, told the BBC: “If one person is the target of police monitoring, there will be a dragnet effect in which dozens, even hundreds, of innocent users also come under surveillance.”

    He added: “It’s not necessarily the case that the more information law enforcement officers have, the safer we will be. Police may well find themselves overwhelmed by a flood of personal information.”

    Meanwhile, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been developing a program called FAST (Future Attribute Screening Technology – this whole field is plagued with acronyms) which aims to spot individuals who haven’t committed a crime but might do.

    System even detects excretion of pheromones

    By means of cameras and other passive sensors, the system collects pictures, voice recordings, data on individuals’ breathing patterns, heart rate, rapidity of blinking and even excretion of pheromones “to detect signs of stress which are often associated with intent to do harm”.

    The DHS has stressed that the development programme involved only volunteers and that no information which could identify individuals was stored.

    It is unclear what is currently happening with the project. For more information, see the following links (InformationWeek) and (CBS News).

    The debate over privacy v public safety looks set to intensify as the digital prophets of crime proliferate.

  • A shield for women? Or a lance for the moral crusaders?

    Germany's zoophiles – they're people who like to have sex with animals – are in a rage.

    Bestiality (as zoophiles' activity is commonly known) was decriminalised in Germany in 1969, along with homosexuality. But now the Berlin Government wants to outlaw it again – something for which animal protection groups have been lobbying.

    And, according to the German news magazine Der Spiegel, the zoophiles are outraged.

    The proposed change in the law is ostensibly to protect animals from suffering abuse.

    But Germany’s zoophiles, who have their own pressure group, called ZETA, appear to be questioning the purity of the Government’s motives.

    Castration without anaesthetic

    ZETA’s Chairman, Michael Kiok, is quoted in Der Spiegel as questioning why, if the ban was really about animal welfare, the Government didn’t also prohibit the practices of castrating piglets without anaesthetic, putting electric rods into boar’s rectums to make them ejaculate (to collect semen for breeding purposes), branding horses or immobilising mares so that they could be mounted by stallions.

    You can read the Der Spiegel article here

    The previous post on this blog examined the way in which many governments cite the need to protect women from being trafficked for prostitution as the reason for outlawing the activities of sex workers, and of the adverse effects this could have on prostitutes, especially women, whether trafficked or not.

    It also described how UK politicians flirted with the idea of criminalising men who bought sex from prostitutes, as Sweden does.

    But trafficking and exploitation in the UK are by no means confined to the sex ‘industry’.

    Forced labour widespread

    The UK’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), a research and campaigning organisation whose goal, in its own words, is “inspiring social change”, says that forced labour is widespread in a whole range of industries.

    It describes the exploitation of a Lithuanian woman in her early 20s, as follows:

    “She regularly worked 16-hour shifts in factories, under threat of losing her job and accommodation if she refused.

    “Overtime was never paid. She was transported to work double shifts in Barnsley, sleeping in a car between shifts. Spurious deductions for 'administration charges' and 'transport costs' were the norm and there was evidence of systematic theft through the deliberate miscalculation of wages.

    'You can't dress or anything'

    “Sometimes migrants worked two shifts only to be paid for one. Her protestations were met with threats of dismissal. She was placed in a bedroom with two men she did not know. Her general mood was 'Terrible. Having to live in a room with two men. You can't dress. You can't do anything.’” (There is no suggestion that she was expected to have sex with the men.)

    In a report entitled Forced Labour in the UK: the Business Angle, the JRF lists reasonable steps that businesses can take to ensure their suppliers do not exploit their workforces. You can download it here

    If politicians were as worried about the fate of exploited workers in, say, the food and construction industries as they profess to be about trafficked sex workers, might not one or two of them now be demanding the criminalisation of businessman and women who do not take these reasonable steps in the same way as others have suggested criminalising men who buy sex, with all the adverse consequences that might bring to the women who sell it?

    Fig leaf for persecution

    Is this stated desire to protect women from trafficking for sexual exploitation (and there is no dispute here that such women should be protected, as should other exploited workers) actually a fig leaf to persecute sex workers on purely moral grounds – as, in the 1960s to the 1980s, UK campaigner Mary Whitehouse demanded that swearing and sex scenes should be censored from everyone's television screens because she and her followers didn't like them?

    We don't criminalise the activities of all food workers just because some are exploited.Nor construction workers. Nor leisure industry workers. Etc.

    Are Germany's zoophiles, who are facing recriminalisation of their activities, victims of a moral crusade in a way in which those who allegedly attack boar's rectums with electrified rods are not?

    If moral crusades become the basis for legislation, could homosexuality one day be recriminalised on the UK?

    This type of lawmaking might protect some victims but it may also create them.

  • Is prohibition a crime against prostitutes?

    If you travel to the New Zealand city of Auckland, you may notice some of the poles supporting traffic signs have been bent or broken. The damage has been done by prostitutes.

    Apparently, they use them as dancing poles. "The poles are part of their soliciting equipment and they often snap them," explained a local councillor, quoted in the UK Daily Telegraph newspaper

    Damaged traffic signs were probably not what the New Zealand government was expecting when, in 2003, it passed the Prostitution Reform Act, which legalised the activity.

    It was an unusual course of action. In many countries, there has long been a debate - similar to that around illicit drugs - over whether prostitution is best tackled by decriminalisation or by rigorous law enforcement. Most have opted firmly for the latter and anti-prostitution legislation is on the increase.

    Sweden, for example, has criminalised the purchase of sex in a bid to stop men seeking prostitutes. This has led to an apparent drop in the number of prostitutes in that country and so impressed the previous UK Government that it considered introducing something similar in Britain.

    However, research by the BBC indicates the disappearing Swedish prostitutes are probably an illusion created by the internet, where prostitutes increasingly solicit, rather than on the street.

    Touch of zealotry

    In a touch of zealotry, the Swedish justice minister apparently suggested sending garish envelopes to the families of men even suspected of buying sex containing a notification of their (possible) activities

    Norway and Iceland have followed Sweden's lead.

    Meanwhile, In France, the women's minister says she wants to abolish prostitution throughout all Europe. As ambitions go, this is a big one.

    In a recently published report on sex workers in Asia and the Pacific, the United Nations Development Programme says that many governments in that region cite the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation as the reason for criminalising some or all aspects of sex work. You can read a summary of the report or download the full document here

    The result, it continues, is to deny labour rights and health services to all sex workers, whether trafficked or not.

    Some countries, says the report, force sex workers into 're-education centres' where they are used a source of cheap or free labour, somewhat cutting away the moral high ground of those who demand criminalisation of sex work to protect women from exploitation.

    In 2007, five prostitutes, aged between 19 and 29, from the English seaside town of Ipswich, were murdered. Afterwards, much effort was put into clearing prostitutes off the streets. Partly, this entailed police arresting kerb crawlers but, more importantly, it involved the work of a charity called the Iceni Project, which helped local prostitutes with their addiction problems and, crucially, found funds to compensate them financially from the loss of earnings caused by the mass arrest of their clients

    For, as the English Collective of Prostitutes points out, sex work is seldom a career choice for women; more an economic necessity.

    The Collective, which promotes rights for sex workers, says: "In the United Kingdom, around 70 per cent of women in prostitution are single mothers who do not receive social benefits. Welfare cuts and the poverty they generate has a particular affect on women, who see their career options narrowing and forcing many of them to resort to sex work to cover basic costs for them and their family."

    It adds: "...There are now more young women resorting to this type of work so that they can continue their university studies, or simply so they don’t have to sleep on the street." See also feature from the UK Independent newspaper about a website offering students money towards their tuition costs in exchange for sex

    Violence 'very common'

    The Collective's spokeswoman, Cari Mitchell, describes violence by men against female prostitutes as "very common" because the victims are reluctant to report it to the police in case they themselves are arrested.

    And prostitutes with a criminal record will find it even harder to escape the sex industry by getting alternative employment.

    The United Nations Development Programme, in its report about sex workers in Asia and the Pacific, found that criminalisation of sex work increases vulnerability to HIV by fuelling stigma and discrimination and limiting access to sexual health services and condoms.

    There is a similar effect in the UK, according to the Royal College of Nursing which, at its 2005 annual conference, voted overwhelmingly in favour of decriminalising prostitution.

    Enough for now, otherwise this blog will become too long to read. Future planned blogs will look at trafficking for exploitation and the pros and cons of decriminalising prostitution.

    Meanwhile, it would be very instructive to hear the views of sex workers and outreach workers, anonymously or otherwise, on this topic via the 'comment' facility below.

  • Criminal Justice cash grab puts people in prison for being poor

    Criminal courts are expensive. So are probation services. Wouldn't it make sense, therefore, to charge convicted offenders for their use in order to defray costs? Especially at a time of huge public debt and financial austerity.

    We're not talking about judicial fines, here, but fees which are imposed on top of fines or other penalties.

    That's certainly the view in the United States, where an increasing number of states are billing offenders for use of court facilities and probation services.

    Sometimes local government imposes its own fees on top of state fees by way of a nice little earner.

    Now an influential British think tank, called Policy Exchange, is calling for the concept to be introduced in the UK and applied to offenders who are subject to electronic monitoring, such as tagging.

    In a report on this form of monitoring, called Future of Corrections, it says that an offender-pay scheme might "help encourage responsibility and offset some of the hardware costs of tagging units”.


    It adds: "Our exclusive public poll on electronic monitoring found that 40 per cent of the public supported the idea of requiring offenders to contribute towards the cost of their tag.

    "A near identical proportion (39 per cent) supported requiring offenders to pay a refundable deposit for the equipment.”

    You can download the report here

    When Policy Exchange speaks, the British Government – or, at least, the majority Conservative part of it – listens. The think tank dreamt up the idea of Police and Crime Commissioners to run local police forces in England and Wales, the first of which are due to be elected next month (November 2012) following the Government's enthusiastic adoption of the idea.

    But will charging offenders fees bring in new revenue for the criminal justice system (CJS)? Or will it actually cost the CJS dear, however counter-intuitive that may sound.

    In the United States, alarm bells are ringing over criminal user fees.

    From the New York Times comes a story of a 53-year-old man charged in Georgia with public drunkeness who was ordered by a court to pay user fees of $270 and put on probation through a for-profit private probation company whichcharged him a $15 enrollment fee and and added a monthly fee of $39, putting the total annual amount which the man was expected to pay at over $700.

    The fact that he was struggling to live on just $243 in veteran's benefits was ignored when it became apparent that he wasn't able to pay the debt, and he was jailed.

    In the same story, the New York Times describes that case of an Alabama woman taken to court for speeding, whose fees soon mounted up to $1,500.

    She, too, was handed over to a private probation company and jailed. The probation company charged her a fee for each day she was behind bars.


    The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law has produced a damning report, Criminal Justice Debt: a Barrier to Re-entry, into offender user fees. It comes with its own horror stories, such as the Californian woman who was trying at pay back her fees and other costs at the rate of $230 dollars a month while her for-profit private probation company was charging her $136.78 a month in its own fees.

    She was worried about falling behind in the payments and being jailed (if she is, she may well end up in a for-profit private prison – see

    Another woman was ordered to pay fees three times the size of her judicial fine and restitution payments put together.

    Unpaid debts are often passed on to debt collection firms, which are allowed to add huge fees of their own.

    The report notes that courts and probation companies fail to take indigence (poverty) into account when chasing these debts.

    It comments: "Criminal justice debt puts many individuals on the fast track to re-arrest and re-incarceration. At their worst, criminal justice debt collection efforts result in a new form of debtors' prison for the poor."

    It adds: "Every time an individual is arrested or imprisoned, taxpayers face a hefty bill. California, for example, pays more than $130 a day to incarcerate a single individual. And over-incarceration requires states to divert resources from other critical areas, including everything from education to law enforcement."

    You can download the Brennan Center report here

  • An eye for an eye, a human life for a human life - Capital Punishment

    There has been huge debate about this topic for quite a while and every single person has a view on this. Firstly I would like to state my position on this topic and say that I am in favour of capital punishment being brought back. I do ask people to please comment and question my beliefs.

    As data shows, the majority of the population of the United Kingdom are in favour of reintroducing the death penalty and I believe a big case of 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth' or retribution is in the minds of many people. The Unites States have capital punishment in 35 of their states therefore we should look at their data to see if the system is successful at deterring crime, and the answer is, it does not.

    We must not forget however that America and the UK are incredibly different countries and therefore the results will be different for both. I believe that if reintroduced, this would stand as a very large statement to the criminal world of 'step over this line and you now know what will happen', In this case i believe that if introduced crime rates for major crime would decrease.

    There are three other reasons why introducing this would benefit society. Firstly, to free up prison space, as we know prisons are becoming much more crowded and committing those top cases would benefit in that way. Secondly, it would serve as an example about how seriously we as a country take the sanctity of human life. The last reason is to see these people who can simply kill another human, taken out of society where they cannot harm another human.

    How can the families of the victims feel like justice has been done when murderers are let out of jail after serving only a half of their original sentence. However I do not believe that this is the only thing that should be done, as I stated before, capital punishment only deters those people who commit the heaviest of crimes such as murder, therefore for smaller crimes to decrease policing needs to be heavily increased.

    At the current moment the police is being cut. At a time where people are struggling financially, cutting the police is not the right thing to be doing. This sector is being stretched heavily as it is along with the amount of paperwork that has to be done is meaning that most of the police are stuck in their stations and not on the streets.

    To make this a safe society an decrease crime levels, we have to increase the police however this then brings up the argument of 'would we be turning into a big brother state?' which is a question I will discuss in a further blog.

  • US criminal justice industry goes from grotesque to macabre

    As the UK Government presses ahead with its programme of privatising large chunks of the criminal justice system, a similar programme in the US is producing results which have gone from grotesque to macabre.

    Let’s start with America’s private prisons.

    GROTESQUE: In the States, many prisons are run by private companies, much to the concern of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In a 2011 report entitled Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration, ACLU questions, with evidence, whether private prisons really cost less than public ones.

    And it alleges that, even if they do, it is frequently because private prison operators cut corners, putting the safety of staff, prisoners and public at risk.

    It cites a Department of Justice investigation into a juvenile prison where violence among inmates was said to be so endemic that it had become entertainment for the guards.

    It also refers to a lawsuit over the death of an epileptic inmate who was in solitary confinement in a private prison and whose body had lain undiscovered for so long that rigor mortis had set in. His cell, it was alleged, had a broken intercom which had prevented him for calling for help.

    In a third case, it describes how an elderly couple died after prisoners who had escaped from a private jail set fire to their camper. An official investigation found that the prison operated with inexperienced staff who had ignored the alarm which sounded when the escapees crossed the perimeter because there had been so many false alarms caused by equipment which was not routinely tested and had not been serviced by properly trained engineers.

    You can read the report’s summary or download the full document here

    MACABRE: Now come reports of a private prison operator offering to help cash-strapped states by buying their publicly-owned prisons off them – on condition that the operator is given a 20-year contract to run the establishments and any state which takes up the offer guarantees to supply sufficient prisoners to ensure the jails are always at least 90 per cent full.

    The story appears in the Huffingdon Post

    If the states cannot meet the quota, they will have to pay for the upkeep of non-existent people. Critics of the plan argue that courts would, instead, come under pressure to pass longer sentences to ensure that the prison operator’s demand is met with appropriate supply.

    The Huffingdon Post quotes ACLU’s Policy Director in Ohio, Shakyra Diaz, as saying: “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    “In order to keep it at 90 per cent, you need to be able to make criminals to fill it at 90 per cent.”

    But perhaps the states needn’t worry. Because even if the crime rate goes down, a system has been developed within the criminal justice system (or should that be: the criminal justice industry?) in some states under which more and more people are being jailed for minor misdemeanors while privatised probation services and other agencies enjoy increased income.

    And that will be the subject of the next blog.

  • UK turns its back on international clamour for drugs decriminalisation

    Britain is losing the 'war on drugs'.

    Don't take this blog's word for it. It's what Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said in evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, which has been conducting an inquiry into drugs.

    "We have been engaged in a war against drugs for 30 years," he told Committee members. "We're plainly losing it."

    The Government, he added, would keep trying "every method we can" to try and get the upper hand in the 'war'... every method, that is, except decriminalisation.

    "The Government has no intention whatever of changing the criminal law on drugs," he said, adding: "I would be worried about losing the deterrent effect of criminalisation of youngsters who start experimenting."

    Some people may wonder why, if this "deterrent effect" is so powerful, the drugs problem is as far away from resolution as ever. They would not be alone.

    Another who would like to see a change in the law is former head of MI5 Baroness Manningham-Buller, who is a member of the All Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform.

    "I think we need to look to the evidence," she said during an interview in November 2011. " We have evidence from a lot of different countries

    "The Czech Republic and Portugal have decriminalised possession and use of small quantities of drugs. They have lower levels of problem drug use, lower levels of use of these drugs among young people, lower cocaine use, lower heroin use.

    "It's fairly clear that you do quite well if you have decriminalisation, so that's one of the policies we think needs to be looked at."

    Baroness Manningham-Buller was speaking after 60 major public figures had written to Prime Minister David Cameron urging that his Government consider decriminalisation.

    "We must seriously consider shifting resources away from criminalising tens of millions of otherwise law abiding citizens, and move towards an approach based on health, harm-reduction, cost-effectiveness and respect for human rights," said the letter, among whose signatories was Sir Richard Branson.

    The former deputy head of MI6, Nigel Inkster, has been even more outspoken than Baroness Manningham-Buller.

    Writing in The Sun newspaper in April 2012, he said: "I have seen at first hand the serious unintended consequences of banning drugs. The huge profits to be made from supplying them have led to a massive global black market dominated by powerful international criminal groups.

    "Producer countries such as Colombia and Afghanistan have been shaken by high levels of drugs-related violence for the past 30 years as criminal groups fight each other and the state.

    "More recently, they have been joined by Mexico and Central America where drug-related murders have reached horrific levels."

    In Latin America, where many drugs originate and parts of which have been devastated by drug cartel violence, the call for change is even more strident.

    Colombia's President, Juan Manuel Santos, has called for a complete rethink on drugs policy.

    "A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking." he said. "If that means legalising, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it. I'm not against it."

    He added: "We have gone through a tremendous experience – dramatic and costly for a society to live through. We have lost our best judges, our best politicians, our best journalists, our best policemen in this fight against drugs and the problem's still there."

    Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has gone ever further and called for narcotics to be legally available.

    Noting that despite decades of arrests and seizures, drug production and consumption was booming, he said: "When we analyse drug markets through realistic lenses (not ideological ones as is pretty much customary in most government circles these days), we realise that drug consumption is a public health issue that, awkwardly, has been transformed into a criminal justice problem."

    He continued: "Our proposal, as the Guatemalan government, is to abandon any ideological position (whether prohibition or liberalisation) and to foster a global intergovernmental dialogue based on a realistic approach – drug regulation.

    "Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalised but within certain limits and conditions. And legalisation therefore does not mean liberalisation without controls."

    Meanwhile, back in the UK, drugs expert Prof Les Iversen got slapped down by Home Secretary Theresa May for suggesting that young people caught with small quantities of drugs should not be subject to a criminal conviction but instead receive a civil penalty such as obligatory attendance at a drug education scheme.

    "We would like to see less young people given criminal records because that has an impact on the rest of their lives in terms of getting a mortgage, getting a job, a college place etc, " he said in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee.

    His suggestion was curtly dismissed by Mrs May. "I have a very tough view on drugs," she said.

    See also:

    The 'War on Drugs' – Attack or Change Tack?

    Addiction: Are We Hooked on a Myth?

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