Tuesday 3 March 2009

The usual nonsense about "soft" sentences.

One of the main ways in which newspapers don't directly lie to their readers is by omitting key facts, especially when it comes to reporting, err, reports. For instance, while they were quick to draw attention to how low trust was in ministers and MPs according to a survey, they didn't bother to report that their own ratings in the same poll were even lower.

There's an even more crude example of something highly similar in today's editorial (url likely to change):

CRIMINALS are laughing at the soft punishments dished out to them, an official report concludes.

This really ought to win an award: there is not just one deception in this short sentence but two. The report, which can hardly be described as official when it was not conducted by the government or one of it's arms-length bodies, but instead by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, one of the liberal think-tanks the Sun would usually sneer at, didn't conclude anything of the sort. The Sun is referring to the views of just one of the twenty-five probation officers interviewed for the report. Here's the paragraph it's taken from:

More than half of our respondents thought that enforcement of Community Orders was more effective and more robust than it had been in the past. But there remained a feeling that not only was this necessary, but that enforcement might have to become even more robust because offenders were ‘coming out of magistrates’ court and they’re laughing their heads off and giving like two ļ¬ngers to the Probation Service and what does that do for us as a service?’ (17).

Even this has been taken out of context. The probation officer wasn't referring to the offenders laughing at the community sentence itself, but instead to not being sent to prison when they've breached the order.

Back to the Sun:

Community sentences are a national joke. They are in place only to keep yobs out of the jails that Labour filled up without thinking to build any more.

Why would crooks take them seriously when they can openly ignore them and still not get sent to prison?

Except the report demonstrates this isn't true either. It notes that not everyone who breaches their order immediately gets sent to prison, but that openly ignoring them repeatedly almost always does result in the offender being sent down. The report's actual conclusions are summarised in the press release:

1. There was a fifteen-fold increase in the use of the Suspended Sentence Order in its first year and a twenty four-fold increase in the three years to 2008. Half of all Suspended Sentence Orders handed out in the magistrates' courts are for the less serious `summary' offences, suggesting that the Orders are being used too often and inappropriately.

2. Both the Community Order and the Suspended Sentence Order appear to be getting tougher and more punitive. Use of unpaid work and curfews has been growing. Both unpaid work and curfew requirements share punishment as a main sentencing purpose, suggesting an increased resort to more punitive requirements.

3. There is no evidence that the Community Order or Suspended Sentence Order are reducing the use of short-term custodial sentences or tackling `uptariffing'. The prison population has continued to grow alongside the increasing use of the two Orders. There is evidence that the sentences are displacing fines, rather than prison.

The report's press release then systematically debunks all the Sun's arguments. Not only are the orders not "soft", there's also no evidence that they are being used as an alternative to prison, rather that through breaches they might well be contributing to the rise in prison population. Furthermore, the interviews which the report conducts with the offenders themselves shows that almost universally they felt that they had benefited from the orders and their contact with the probation teams, far more than they would have done from simply being banged up. With a slightly more rigorous crackdown on those breaching them, as well as ensuring that they are used as an alternative to prison, the orders could have a far greater beneficial effect. All of this is completely ignored by a newspaper diametrically opposed to anything other than jail terms, except of course when it comes to the likes of Jack Tweed, today found guilty of a second assault offence, who was given the front page treatment last week because of his marriage to Jade Goody.

Prisons themselves don't however escape ignorant criticism:

But then, increasingly, neither are our jails.

Many are drug-ridden holiday camps. Regimes are so lax that violent thugs communicate freely with the outside world via Facebook pages they have set up on smuggled mobiles.

As jailed brute Ross Ajilo points out: “Incarceration ain’t working.”

And nor will it when prison is seen as little more than an inconvenience.

Those given the orders in the report certainly didn't see prison as an inconvenience: they were "relieved" to be given community orders, not just because they were seen as a less harsh punishment but also because they themselves knew that prison doesn't work, and not because they're "drug-ridden holiday camps" but because being banged up in a cell for up to 23 hours a day with other criminals doesn't even begin to help to rehabilitate them. As for the other points raised, the Sun could of course solve the problems of drugs in prisons and smuggled mobiles instantly. Incarceration ain't working because it has never worked, except for those who are such a danger to others and themselves that they need to be locked away both for their own and others' safety.

To add further insult to injury, it then makes a comparison:

WHILE we’re on the subject, here’s a REAL crime deterrent:

A long stay at any of Britain’s worst ten hotels.

Vile smells, mould, stagnant puddles in the shower, stains on the carpet, vomit in the sinks.

Just add padlocks to the doors — and judges will reduce hardened thugs to blubbing babies in the dock . . .

“You will spend 25 years at the Cromwell Crown hotel in Earls Court.”

This obviously isn't meant completely seriously, but if the Sun really thinks that there aren't all of those things and a lot lot worse in prisons then they must be living on another planet. It's probably not even worth stating actual examples, but the latest annual report by the prisons inspectorate found that one of the main concerns was "[U]nsuitable, cramped or unhygienic accommodation in some prisons". Anne Owers summed it up well in her report on Brixton:

“Brixton prison exemplifies all the problems of our overcrowded prison system. It has old, cramped and vermin-infested buildings, no workshops to provide skills training, and two prisoners eating and living in a cell with an unscreened toilet no more than an arm’s length away.”

The Sun would doubtless think this was a good thing.

P.S. Some exemplary hypocrisy from the Sun's deputy editor, Fergus Shanahan in his column today:

GOD help us if Harriet Harman ever gets her hands on power.

She wants the rule of law replaced by “a court of public opinion”.

That’s a polite way of saying mob rule.

This being the same newspaper which thinks that mob rule on matters such as social workers and paedophiles is a damn good idea. Shanahan also calls Harman, hilariously, "Harridan Harman"; as often seems to be the case when criticising female politicians, general misogyny seems to quickly enter the terminology.


James said...

at least Shanahan is actually making a good point. If only they would stick to it.

Sim-O said...

"at least Shanahan is actually making a good point"

It's just a shame that teh Sun has a business account with "Lynchmobs4U plc".