The Public Policy

Three Strikes and You’re … in Like Flint

Stirred by its failure to combat crime, Britain is responding by awarding serious criminals with cautions and prosecuting self-defenders.

By 4.10.06

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American and British criminologists have long been puzzled and angered by the fact that Britain seems to have learnt nothing from the experience of New York in successfully reducing crime.

The big drop in virtually all types of crime in New York has generally been attributed to the zero-tolerance policy associated with Mayor Guiliani. Now Britain, far from adopting zero-tolerance, looks like it's adopting a policy of not prosecuting many serious crimes at all. This is the subject of an official Home Office directive to all British police forces. British police have now been told that instead of arresting a range of serious criminals, they can be let off with a caution.

The Home Office says offenses that may now be dealt with by a caution include burglary of a shop or office, threatening to kill, actual bodily harm, and possession of Class A drugs such as heroin or cocaine if police decide a caution would be the best approach.

Other crimes including common assault, threatening behavior, sex with an underage girl or boy, and car theft should normally be dealt with by a caution, if the offenders admit their guilt but have no criminal record.

London and British crime rates have been increasing for years. Recently total crime rates for London have been estimated at about seven times those of New York for a slightly smaller population and some authorities suggest these figures have been minimized. England and Wales are now accounted by some estimates as the most dangerous places for crime in the developed world.

New York and London have populations of 8 million and 7 million respectively and comparable police budgets, though New York has about 40 percent more police actually on the beat. British papers retail many incidents of British police, rather than preventing crime, being kept busy "celebrating diversity" and prosecuting politically incorrect remarks and behavior (large amounts of money and court time have been spent by the Crown Prosecution Service on cases of children who have made politically incorrect remarks in school playground fights, for instance).

In Norfolk, where the Tony Martin affair and other matters revealed a state of professional criminal gangs systematically robbing and terrorizing isolated rural dwellers, police recently alerted all officers to the fact a man was still at large after having stolen four soft porn magazines. This desperado's picture was sent to stations throughout the county, and the police released closed circuit television footage of the crime and appealed to members of the public to ring a Crimestopper number if they knew his identity and could help bring him to justice.

There have also been numerous and well-publicized cases of people being prosecuted and jailed for defending themselves from criminal attacks. A storekeeper was knifed in the back as he tackled a gang of youths stealing wine from his Norwich store. He was arrested on two charges of assault.

Shirley Best, owner of the Rolander Fashion Boutique, was ironing some garments when two youths broke in. They pressed the hot iron into her side and stole her watch, leaving her badly burnt. "I was frightened to defend myself," said Miss Best, "I thought if I did anything I would be arrested." In July 2002, a shopkeeper, Richard Barnes, hit a teenage thief whom he had confronted with a single blow. The thief had previously thrown a punch at him. Mr. Barnes was arrested, tried before a jury, and eventually acquitted after a three-day trial in the Hull Crown Court.

There have been doubts expressed that a right to self-defense still exists in British law. Following one homicidal home burglary Dr. Ian Stephen, an Honorary Lecturer (Forensic Psychology) at Glasgow Caledonian University, told householders:

"If you attack the burglar, or react in an 'over-the-top' manner... you will inevitably end up on the receiving end of a prison sentence that will far outstrip that imposed on the intruder in your own home.... [W]hen individuals are confronted by intruders there are some actions they should follow. Direct contact should be avoided whenever possible. If unavoidable, the victim should adopt a state of active passivity..."

In 2002 a study found that 11 million crimes had been left out of British government figures, including hundreds of thousands of serious crimes involving woundings, robberies, assaults and even murders as well as thefts. Dr. David Green of the Civitas research institute said: "When you check the small print, it turns out the Home Office itself thinks that there were far more than the 13 million crimes discovered by the [official] British Crime Survey, perhaps four times as many." Dr Green said the Office of National Statistics was subject to political interference and a genuinely independent statistical service was needed.

An official study published by the British Home Office in 2005 stated one in four youths aged 14 to 17 has been classified as a serious or prolific offender -- that is had six or more minor offenses or one major offense within the past 12 months. The study suggested there were 3.8 million active offenders overall, far more than the government had previously acknowledged, yet only one percent of offenses resulted in a court appearance. Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, described the figures as "appalling," and said, "we have to drive down the idea that crime is acceptable," evidently a novel idea.

Dr. Green commented on the latest directive:

"They appear to have given up making the court system work and doing anything about delays and the deviousness of defense lawyers.

"This is part of the wider problem that the Home Office has an anti-prison bias. But while they regard prison as uncivilized, they don't seem to care whether the alternatives work or not."

As Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair ("tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime") succeeded in watering down the previous Conservative government's proposals in the Crime Sentencing Act 1997 for a mandatory three-year prison sentence for home burglary (one of the most dangerous crimes, and one often extremely traumatic for the victims), so that, in the seven years after the act came into force, fewer than 15 of the hundreds convicted of burglary for a third time had been given the allegedly mandatory three-year sentence.

Burglars and muggers should be spared prison more often, courts have been told, and very recently sentencing authorities ordered a further "raising of the custody threshold" to keep out of prison more offenders who would in the past have been given up to a year in jail.

The Home Office said the latest guidance had been circulated nationally because there had been regional anomalies in the way offenders were dealt with and these needed to be removed. A spokesman said:

"Cautioning in individual cases is an operational matter for the police and Crown Prosecution Service. The new circular firstly provides up to date guidance on the use of cautions to encourage consistency across the country.

"Secondly, with the introduction of statutory charging, the guidance needed to clarify what the effect would be on police responsibility for cautions. Finally the guidance was introduced to outline the practical process of administering a caution."

Dr. Green said: "The Home Office is missing its target to achieve a set number of offenders brought to justice. But it seems they regard a caution as an offender brought to justice. This is a nod and a wink to police forces -- deal with your cases by cautions and we will hit our target."

IN MARCH 2005, THE CHIEF Constable of Nottinghamshire, Steve Green, said his force was overwhelmed with violent crime, and "could no longer cope." He said police were smothered in bureaucratic duties. Gun-related crimes had hit record levels across England and Wales in the preceding year, rising by about 11 percent in a single year (sexual offenses rose by 18 percent), to more than double their rate when Labor took power. At that time the Home Office had promised a renewed drive against crime in various areas. Home Office Minister Caroline Flint admitted that having a gun pointed at one was a "frightening experience." However, she continued, in many cases the triggers were not actually pulled.

A study by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research in June 2005 found that violence from teenage thugs had a major impact on the lives of one in five of the population. According to a 2005 survey of 200,000 National Health Service workers, one third of ambulance staff and more than one half of paramedics had been subjected to violence in the course of their work. Civitas said previously that the rise in British crime-rates was "so spectacular" that it was "difficult to comprehend." Britain was "a seriously crime-infected and disintegrating society." Burglaries had increased from 72,000 in 1964 to 402,000 in 2004. Robberies of personal property had risen from 3,000 in 1964 to 101,000 in 2003-04. The report added: "England, from being a society remarkably free of crime and disorder, especially from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century, by the late 1990's had a worse record than France, Germany or the United States."

Andrew Lloyd Webber recently claimed the London crime rate was driving away theatre goers and killing the West End. Actress Joan Collins, who had lived for many years in Belgravia, announced she was moving to New York, claiming that even in this expensive and fashionable district she felt continually threatened. Miss Collins said:

"As a young girl in my teens and 20s I could stroll round the streets of London by night if I chose and know that I'd be safe. I'm sad to have to say it, but that is no longer the case. I don't even feel comfortable walking the few hundred yards from my flat round the corner to my hairdresser's.

"Groups of muggers are frequently attacking people in the area where I live in London. And the police don't appear to be able to do anything about it. The gangs just cock a snook at them."

At any rate, the new British policy should provide criminologists with an interesting control-group experiment to compare against New York zero-tolerance, though it may not be too hard to predict the results in advance.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.