The danger of “Tough on Crime” Rhetoric

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As gang and knife crime have become ever-present in the news, the government tries to comfort the public with a ‘tough on crime’ agenda. But are more arrests and longer prison sentences really the answer?

Crime has been a growing concern in UK politics recently. With austerity meaning cuts to police forces and the Ministry of Justice undergoing 40% cuts by 2020, services have been struggling. With the administrative load of the criminal justice system alone being a huge burden, the prevention of crime itself has suffered.

In the current political climate (October 2019), political parties are rallying for an expected general election. Each is trying to win over the public after the last few years of difficult austerity and public spending cuts. After Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has been criticised for the ongoing knife crime epidemic in London, the Conservative Party are keen to promote a ‘tough on crime’ image. On his appointment has Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was quick to announce that he would be funding 20,000 new police officers and 10,000 new prison places. Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel describes the Tory party as ‘the party of law and order in Britain’.

This stance is clearly popular. For those scared to walk home at night in their own neighbourhoods, those who have lost children and family members to knife crime, and those who are victims of crime, an increase in police numbers sounds reassuring. Putting more people in prison sounds like the best way to keep ‘us’ safe. So far, the government have encouraged this way of thinking by promoting surface-level reforms without tackling the issues at their core.

At the conservative party conference, Patel said ‘we stand against the criminals, the gangs, the drug barons, the thugs, the terrorists who seek to do us harm.’

She went on to say: ‘To the British people: we hear you […] and to the criminals, I simply say this: we are coming after you.’

This kind of language is deliberate and damaging.

It stresses the idea that some people just are ‘criminals’, people whom ‘the rest of us’ have nothing to do with. What does ‘us’ mean in Patel’s statement? I would argue that her use of this ‘them and us’ idea appeals to the middle and upper classes, those who see themselves as totally separate from anyone who might commit a crime. It appeals to those who are statistically less vulnerable to being drawn into or affected by criminal activity. Meanwhile, those young people who are at risk of involvement in gang crime and knife crime, generally those in the poorest areas of the country, feel even more alienated. When the Home Secretary differentiates between ‘the British people’ and criminals, those young people who feel they have no choice but to get involved in criminal activity, who feel unsupported and unrepresented, see their lack of representation in the government reinforced. They are being told they are not valued British citizens. In reality, they need their voice to be heard and to be supported to prevent them from turning to crime.

The idea that people are turning into criminals because they aren’t being punished hard enough is proven to be quite shaky logic. It seems obvious- all criminals are ‘bad people’ who need to be treated as such. That’s why prison is so unpleasant in the UK- to deter people from committing any more crimes, right?

Now, we know that’s not true, but it seems to be the logic applied by he Conservative party and some other politicians to try and get votes. Admittedly, the idea of spending MORE of the public’s hard-earned taxes on rehabilitation and support for the very people who commit crimes is a bit of a challenge to sell to voters.

We already imprison more people than any other country in Western Europe. Inspections of our prisons have found conditions to be shockingly bad; last year, Liverpool prison was found to have the ‘worst conditions inspectors have seen’, with rats, cockroaches, leaking toilets and broken windows just some of the features. Meanwhile, prison numbers are 8,700 above the prisons service’s own overcrowding limits.

You may think these conditions make prison less appealing, reducing crime. But in reality, the poor conditions mean prisoners feel abandoned by the state- once released, they may understandably lack motivation to contribute to the society that treated them so badly. In a previous blog we talked about the lack of support for those coming out of prison and into homelessness, another contributor to feelings of helplessness faced by ex-offenders. As a result, reoffending rates are extremely high:

“Prison has a poor record for reducing reoffending—nearly half of adults (48%) are reconvicted within one year of release.”


These shocking statistics prove that we’re doing something wrong. In an attempt to save money through overcrowding in prisons and lack of support for prison leavers, the criminal justice system loses a huge amount of money as reoffenders end up back in prison instead of being supported to live independent and meaningful lives.

You may wonder why we are bothered about this issue as a homeless charity. Well, we work with a huge number of very vulnerable people. At least half of them have been in prison at some point in their lives, many from a young age. It is heart-breaking to think that had they been supported at the age of 17 to find meaning and pursue opportunities in their lives, they may have had totally different lives now. If someone had listened to them when they felt disenfranchised and angry, they may have turned their lives around.

When a 50-year-old comes into my office having been in prison on and off for 30 years and found themselves on the streets, it feels like a waste of a life that could have been much happier.

When someone with learning difficulties gets into a fight or is arrested for possession of cannabis, it seems so obvious that they should be getting support to overcome their issues. Locking them away may be the last straw to turn them to a life of criminality.

When yet another community centre struggles to continue due to austerity’s funding cuts and more kids are left without activities, opportunities and positive spaces to grow in, how can we expect those from poorer backgrounds to work against the odds without a helping hand?

A huge percentage of those in prison have committed crimes out of desperation and lack of opportunity. The government’s ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric simply isn’t going to reduce crime. We know that.

Contrary to what she may have us believe, the criminals Priti Patel talked about in her speech are in fact British people. They are products of a system that doesn’t support young people’s services, support workers, and local communities. They have been let down by those in power.

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What can I do to help?

As British citizens in a democracy, we have power. We must draw political attention to these issues that continue to ingrain poverty into our society.

You can write to your MP- feel free to quote from or link to this blog. You can find your MP’s details here, just make sure you include your name and address in your email/letter. It’s important to raise awareness of these issues! Share the blog, talk to your friends, colleagues and families about these issues, and support local charities who support vulnerable people.

Thanks for reading.

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