Posted on Leave a comment

Young offenders – the result of cause and effect

This week I want to reflect on young offenders. Should they be seen and treated as criminals at all, why do some young people offend and how can we change the course of their lives towards a more positive future? I would like to answer those questions by reflecting on my own youth and childhood.

Now, I don’t want to pretend I come from a typical working-class family from a deprived estate in one of the poorest area’s of the country, cause I actually grew up in a middle-class well off family, in a richer part of a new estate in a village in the West of the Netherlands. So straight off, that is not the average type of family for someone who briefly ended up in prison at the age of 18. But what is striking is the circumstances and behaviour prevalent in my family growing up, and that nobody intervened and tried to stop the harm that went on.

Many young offenders have grown up in deprived areas, in single parent families often from BAME communities, have experienced abuse and neglect and have poor academic achievements. After analysing child prison services in England and Wales criminologists Jessica Jacobson and collegues (2010) as cited in Manlow (2019, p. 166) argued that before being imprisoned:

  • 51% lived in deprived households and/or unsuitable accomodation
  • 47% had at some point in their lives run away from home
  • 27% had been in local authority care
  • 12% had experienced the loss of a parent/sibling
  • 48% had been excluded from school

Then a later report from the Ministry of Justice (2013) cited research with the following findings:

  • 50% of 15-17 year olds in public sector young offenders institutions had literacy levels expected of 7-11 year olds.
  • 18% had a statement of special educational needs
  • 27% of young men aged 15-17 had emotional or mental health problems
  • 39% had been on the Child Protection Register or had experienced child abuse or neglect.

Out of all these points I tick four. And I don’t tick more because Social Services didn’t get involved, because nobody alerted them, and nobody died although there were several attempts which could have resulted in death. I did have severe problems at school which turned out was partly due to having dyscalculia (dyslexia for numbers) which was never diagnosed. But I wonder, if those issues would be addressed, how many of those young people and children would still offend?

And that is the interesting question everyone in society should think about. I am absolutely convinced, that if someone had alerted the authorities, social services or the school I went to about the horrific abuse I was witnessing at home, the torture of my adopted sister by my mother, and the neglect we were both experiencing, that I wouldn’t have had the devastating consequences of this. If we would have been taken into care, and placed in a loving family with specialist support to deal with the trauma, I know we would both now been much better equipped to go through life, and support our own children. I would not have gone to prison, or experienced more endless abuse in my teens and adulthood.

I don’t think I even need to give evidence of the positive results of giving children love, compassion and attention, a decent home, food and clothing and especially the opportunity to play, and be heard. It is simply common sense. By locking children and young people up, depriving them from the basics a human need to develop, by treating them harshly and without compassion, what do you expect to happen to that person? What chance does that child have to be a law-abiding, productive citizen? I say none. And most young people and children in prisons in England and Wales have had traumatising experiences before being incarcerated, so by locking them up and depriving them from the basics what will happen to this child when released is to me simply cause and effect; they will be more likely to commit further offenses.

(cited in Manlow, 2019, p. 1

So, why do children and young people commit offenses? Well, this also is a matter of cause and effect. In this capitalist system, where public services like Social Services, local authority care provision for children, mental health services, schools and youth clubs are cut from funding to such a degree that quality service is no longer possible, the safety net for vulnerable children is no longer available. Then also wages are very low, work is precarious for many parents who fall into poverty, and domestic abuse and mental health problems cause many children to get into harmful or deprived situations. And where there is poverty and very few chances of decent work the easy money being made in drugs trafficking or other criminal behaviour is very tempting. Many children and young people are vulnerable to exploitation and get groomed into gangs or prostitution. And that is basically what happened to me too.

I suffered domestic abuse and neglect as a child and got expelled from school age 16. By that time I had already been sexually abused and ran away from home age 17. I was extremely vulnerable, I started to use drugs from age 15 and developed serious mental health issues as a result from the abuse which all was completely undiagnosed. I had psychosis and PTSD by the time I was 18 and still had not received any help, support or diagnosis from anyone. I continued to be sexually abused by men, sometimes I knew them, but often I didn’t. I had no control over my life at all. I got into prison when I took part in a resistant eviction of a squat, together with 6 others. I got sentenced to 3 weeks in prison of which 2 weeks on licence, so I only was in prison for a week, but it was very hard, because I wasn’t allowed to mix with the other inmates, and was locked up 23.5 hrs a day, half hour in the yard by myself. There was no support at all and we were treated very badly by the police and in court, including extreme interrogation techniques. They left the light on for 24 hours a day, and non-stop music in cells so you couldn’t sleep. They beat some of my friends up really badly for no reason, in the cell next to me which I could hear. They followed and monitored my friends on the outside.

All this time I had not received any help, support or intervention from any services, nor were me or my sister taken into care, which should have happened, and my parents should have been charged with child abuse and neglect. Instead my sister was blamed for having behavioural issues and my parents continued to abuse her until finally at 15 she left. I am sure if she had stayed she would have died. All this happened in the 70’s and 80’s when mental health and social services were in its infancy.

As a result my life totally spiralled out of control, and around age 22 or 23 I was addicted, and nearly got groomed and forced into prostitution by a gang of criminals. I managed to escape, but at that time I was so utterly traumatised, ill and skin on bones I felt I had no choice but to go back to my parents, to get off drugs and try to turn my life around. I did that all by myself, because still, I had no help or support. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do, but I got out and started again.

I think, that if the thousands of opportunities were taken by state agencies to interfere and rescue me and my sister at a young age, much of the abuse and trauma that happened even through to my adult life wouldn’t have occurred. I might very well have not got to prison, not been excluded from school and had a successful career. Instead I now struggle with chronic mental health and back pain and have for most of my life had to live of benefits because I can’t hold down a job. I have suffered domestic abuse by 2 partners who are also the fathers of my children. I still can’t deal with relationships and struggle to have a social life. All this could have been prevented.

My point is, that in my opinion many crimes can be prevented if we look after people in society. If people have the means, and I mean this in the broadest sense of the word, to work and sustain themselves in every aspect of life, they generally won’t commit crime. If children, all children, are looked after with love, care and respect, and are listened to, they likely won’t commit crime. Maybe we should give it a try.

References

Manlow, D. (2019), ‘Deconstructing youth justice’ in Downes, J., Kent, G., Mooney, G., Nightingale, A. and Scott, D. (eds.) Introduction to criminology 2, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Posted on 2 Comments

The end for capitalism, the end for punishment?

This is the fourth episode in a series of articles about Criminology concepts in a Socialist context and this week I will be talking about what the future holds for capitalism and the way it’s dealing with crime by punishment of offenders. If we would choose Socialism as a system to organise society, would there still be need and necessity for a penal system and prisons? How would we deal with crime and criminals? How safe would we be?

The end for capitalism

To answer these questions I have to explain why I see the end for the capitalist system. The short answer is that it just doesn’t provide any solutions for the many problems it has created. Inherent to capitalism is inequality and competition, and without it it can’t function. But, as we increasingly found out during this current Covid-19 pandemic, it doesn’t function with it either. Capitalism has exploited our natural world for its resources and created global warming because of it, but because of its relentless drive for more short-term profit it doesn’t have any interest in investing those profits in developing long-term tactics to sustain itself. The pharmaceutical industry is competing with itself to develop the best and quickest Covid vaccine but because those companies want to make a profit, only sell it to the richest countries. In the poorer countries the illness keeps mutating and eventually outmanoeuvres the vaccines, defying the objective and eventually everyone including the richest are going to suffer the consequences. This is only one small example, but fundamentally this is how capitalism creates its own gravediggers (Marx and Engels, 1848).

So what has the penal system to do with capitalism? Hasn’t it evolved by itself regardless of the system it is embedded in? No, I don’t think so. It is a fact that most corporate and state crime is not prosecuted because it is embedded in capitalism. The rich and most powerful in society produce the laws, which they write in their own interests, they pass the laws through parliament and enforce the laws. They have seats in all the pillars of the justice system, so that in itself makes that most corporate and state crime is not ending up in court, let alone prison. Capitalism is inherently inequal, the justice system is too. The poor, working-class and BAME communities are disproportionately represented in prisons and therefore one can argue that the Criminal Justice System is just a Criminal System without the justice. In my view, if justice is not applied equally it is not justice. The capitalist state uses the Criminal Justice System (CJS) to control the poor and most disadvantaged in society, as those groups are the biggest threat to capitalist power. If those groups, which lets face it are the majority, discover their collective power the ruling class will be gone forever. So this system is designed to pitch people against each other, compete, divide and encourage individualism, because the opposite, collectivism and socialism is a threat to the status quo.

A better result for society

A better result for society

The penal system is based on punishment and retribution because if it would actually look at the causes of crime and violence it would inevitably have to conclude that the whole capitalist system of exploitation and profit making was at the root of it. And off course that is not an option. So instead the whole penal system is now driven to the pursuit of profit by exploitation as well. And any subversive attempts to rejection or protest is met by state violence.

So lets imagine our society would transition to a socialist state. Every aim would be directed by how society as a whole would benefit to the maximum possible result. So lets say a man had murdered his wife. In the current system he would be facing 20-30 years in prison, which literally means he’d be locked up without much effort to rehabilitate him, let alone look at why he did this heinous act. I can imagine in a socialist society every effort would be undertaken to first assess why he did this and what led up to this act, then work with this man to see how he can firstly accept and face up to the fact of his murder and once he accepts he did this, then steps can be taken to work on why he did it, and how he could be rehabilitated. At the same time every effort needs to go into working with the family of the victim, to go through a process of mourning, and support them in every way to process and deal with this traumatic event. In all of this central should be to eventually reach the best possible outcome for everybody involved, and ultimately for the wider society. Because at the end of the day, society is best served by making sure people feel safe, and can be themselves to the best of their ability. At the moment the central aim of society is to make a few very rich people even richer at the expense of the majority and to keep it that way at any cost. Punishing people is not and is proven not to change anyone. It is counterproductive as it creates more violent and disturbed people. So rehabilitation and education is the way forward I think. Imagine if all the resources that are put into prisons and keeping people locked up go towards investing in people, in mental health care and research, in education and rehabilitation. In quality youth services, and support for parents in raising children, better and cheap housing for everyone, shorter working days so people have time to spend with their families and do things they love. I believe it would lead to less crime and happier people.

Transition

But would it actually eventually lead to a complete abolishment of the prison system? Maybe not, but if it would be necessary to keep people away from the rest of society for a time, it would be much more open and aimed towards integration into society. Off course we would have to deal with the results of capitalism for a long time, so a gradual transitional programme would be implemented. And the bottom line would not be based on punishing people for crimes, but on rehabilitation and integration. This is I think based around the idea that punishment, retaliation and retribution is eventually exacerbating the cause and only inciting further violence.

I think if the Criminal Justice System would be based on a community led, democratically run system justice could be actual justice, where the plight of the criminal would be just as important as the recovery of the victims and intrinsically linked, however difficult this would be for both parties. This is not an easy answer, or an easy way. I think it is very complex and difficult, but in the end society would be better off because it would deal with the actual causes of crime, instead of constantly creating more.

Because the whole of society would be involved in the creation of this new system, the world would slowly become safer and a happier place to live in for everyone. There are no guarantees or assurances, and it is a very difficult road, hence why a lot of people would say this is inherently utopian. To those I say: “is trying to reform this cruel and dystopian monster of a system we live in today, with all its injustices and inequalities, which only profits a handful in the short-term but makes this planet inhabitable for all of us within 2 or 3 generations not the definition of utopian?”. Trying to change something by doing the same thing over and over again is insane, so trying the opposite might actually result in the biggest rescue operation of our habitat and species and security of our future. Marx, Engels and Trotsky were not utopians but realists, their theories and strategies are based on everyone’s lived experience, they recognised that everything is constantly in motion, moving and changing and to influence these processes you need to analyse events and apply the lessons of the past to problems we face in the present to create a new future. Their version of socialist theory is called ‘dialectic materialism‘ which means that in essence matter is constantly moving, changing and evolving, and the old system already has the seeds of the new in it, as the new system will contain some of the old too as it is ever changing.

Conclusion

For decades now statistics show clearly the Criminal Justice System is not contributing to bringing down crime rates and the rehabilitation of convicted criminals. If anything the situation is worsening. The whole capitalist system is in crisis as it seems to be in a downward vortex of a profit driven debt mountain, which causes economic instability, exploitation of natural resources to the point of global environmental collapse, and all of it causes mass movements of people on the run for economic, environmental and social disasters. A pretty dystopian picture. Socialism on the basis of Marx’ and Engels’ dialectic materialism offers a genuine alternative with hope on a better future for everyone. This is not an easy or even guaranteed route to success. It is a very complex and difficult fight but one that is very positive and forward looking. I find that very appealing compared to the dead end road we are on now, with none of the people in power at present offering a genuine alternative or even a glimmer of hope. If I have to imagine how safe we would be in a socialist world, I think the answer is that we would be as safe as the most vulnerable person would be safe. We all have the responsibility to work towards making it safer everyday for that person, by paying attention, by listening, by investing in our children and young people, by investing in ourselves.

There is absolutely no point locking people away, punishing people, killing people in name of the state because all it does is making the situation worse. The children of convicted offenders won’t have a dad or a mother to guide them away from crime, all they have is anger and frustration, guilt and shame which can only lead to negative outcomes. The family of the victims also don’t have any positive guidance and support, only anger, grief and loss which can only lead to a negative outcome for them. We have tried prison, punishment and deprivation, with no real positive results so why not try the alternative. Rehabilitation, restoration and reconciliation, truly investing in people with positive action. But this is only possible if the whole system is transformed by the majority in a democratic, planned economy for a socialist future for everyone.