Zeroing in on rising crime

Alison Laferla looks at how the UK government's response to rising crime figures is shadowing penal policies in the US. Alison Laferla is a freelance journalist.

When Home Secretary Jack Straw launched his zero tolerance campaign against crime, many commentators said he was trying to out-do Michael Howard in the tough-on-crime stakes.

But Straw may well have taken his inspiration from across the Atlantic, where US president Bill Clinton was re-elected on the promise of a crack-down on crime. The message from the governments of both countries is, for the time being, very similar: it says, zero tolerance of all offences, no matter how petty.

Zero tolerance, says Professor Paul Rothstein, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Centre in Washington, and former chair of the ABA committee on criminal procedure and evidence, is the current catch phrase of state and federal government in the US.

“There is a lot of talk in law enforcement departments that there should be zero tolerance,” says Rothstein. “The thinking is to crack down on offences such as graffiti and lawless begging because somehow there is contagion to other crime.”

As a result, it seems that penal policy in the UK and the US is progressing along similar lines, driven by public concern about the rise in crime.

The problem of juvenile crime, which dominated pre-election news in this country, is also a big issue in the US, where most of the 50 state jurisdictions are currently revising their laws on youth crime.

“There has been impatience here with the ever-younger commission of crime,” says Rothstein.

“The public and most law-makers feel that we have been too lenient on young offenders, particularly where there is violent crime. We are getting more conservative on this issue and are moving towards punishing them at an earlier age.”

Rothstein says a handful of states have introduced parental responsibility orders similar to those outlined in the Labour manifesto. One common form is to issue parents with a warning if their child commits an offence and, if it happens again, to fine them. Other states require the parents to receive counselling if their child commits offences.

“The civil libertarians are concerned that parents are being blamed for the acts of their child. But the general feeling beginning to gel is that too often there is a lack of parental supervision and that parents should be responsible,” comments Rothstein.

Similar experiments are also being carried out on another Labour election pledge, community safety orders. These are injunctions against certain types of behaviour which, if breached, would lead to imprisonment and, in serious cases, to detention in secure accommodation for juveniles. In Los Angeles, for example, gangs are being put under court orders not to assemble on street corners.

Another Labour proposal that mirrors the criminal justice system in the US is the appointment of a chief crown prosecutor to head each local police authority area. This, says Rothstein, looks comparable to the US system of US attorneys, in which an attorney is responsible for federal prosecutions in his area, with certain exceptions, which are referred to Washington.

The system, he says, has the advantage that “the prosecutor is in touch with local currents, feelings and thoughts”.

Labour has also promised to pilot compulsory drug testing of people who have been arrested and random drug testing of prisoners.

Of the US experience, Rothstein says US courts have upheld the legality of random drug testing of prisoners but as yet there has been no definitive decision about mandatory testing of all offenders, although there are proposals to do so.

The move to privatise prisons, which is currently being debated in both countries, received a significant setback in the US recently, according to Rothstein, when the Supreme Court held that officers in privatised prisons do not have immunity from law suits in the same way government prison officers do.

But the really big hot potato in the US at the moment concerns the release of child sex offenders. Both the US and the UK are grappling with the legality of notifying local communities about the release of such offenders, but the US has just gone one stage further.

It looks likely, says Rothstein, that following a recent Supreme Court ruling, all states will pass a law on sexually dangerous predators. This will allow civil commitment proceedings to be taken against a child sex offender after he has served his prison sentence.

If the court finds the offender to be mentally abnormal or to have a personality disorder, and he is predicted to be dangerous, then he can be committed indefinitely to a mental hospital, apparently regardless of whether he is to be treated there or not.

As yet, the UK has not gone as far on this issue. It has also pulled back from two of the concepts most commonly associated with US-style justice – boot camps and mandatory minimum sentences – both of which were introduced here by the previous government.

Mandatory sentences and sentencing guidelines exist in many states across the uS. One common form operates through a points system, where points are allocated for different factors in an offence, such as the type of crime and the offender's background. These are all added up to get a total figure which is translated, using a chart, into a certain sentence. The practice, says Rothstein, is very controversial.

Mandatory sentences and sentencing guidelines are constantly under revision, he says.

“It has been criticised as giving prosecutors too much power because it affects plea bargaining and it seems to be increasing prison populations, which is causing a lot of problems,” says Rothstein.

“Judges are also very upset because a lot of them feel that they are forced to do things that are not fair. But,” he adds, “the system is very popular with the public because the public is very afraid of crime.”

In its election manifesto, Labour pledged to implement some form of sentencing guidelines for “all the main offences to ensure greater consistency and stricter punishment for serious repeat offenders”.

But although the Crime (Sentences) Bill, if implemented, will lay down mandatory sentences for certain offences, judges will have the power to deviate from them in the interests of justice.

And, although the Young Offenders' Unit at the Military Corrective Centre in Colchester is likely to remain open for the full pilot period of one year, a Prison Reform Trust spokesman says “all the indications are that it will be closed because it is so expensive and not many people go there because the selection criteria are so rigid”.

So, despite the UK Government proving cautious on some of the more radical US criminal justice proposals, it has generally followed its lead. But the problem with the concept of zero tolerance, says Rothstein, is that there is no conclusive proof of a link between petty crime and other forms of criminal activity, with research on the issue pointing both ways. What is more, he adds, there is controversy over whether the policy represents good value for money.

He concludes: “Zero tolerance is very expensive and whether it can be all worked out without bankrupting the system is another matter.”