George Walford: Naughty Children

Since 1979 spending on criminal justice has leapt from £2 to £5 billion; an increase of 50 per cent in real terms. The number of police has increased by 13 per cent and of prison staff by 50 per cent; 49,000 prisoners are now managed by 33,000 warders. 28 new prisons are being prepared, with 10,000 places. Over the same period there has been an increase of one million in recorded crimes, with violence- and drug-related offences, which have been punished most harshly, increasing most rapidly. [1]

The increased spending does not have to be the cause of the increase in recorded crime, but the co-existence of the two does suggest that crime is not going to be squashed out of existence by piling police, lawyers, prisons and warders on top of it. Crime has persisted down through the ages, whatever the measures taken against it, and this suggests that to regard it as the outcome of deviance, inferiority or insufficiency on the part of individual people, or even as a response to particular social conditions, is to underestimate it; it is more deep-rooted than that.

With rare exceptions, criminal behaviour consists in pursuing one’s own interests in ways which society has forbidden, and this means that without the prohibition there can be no crime; in that sense, it is law which creates crime. Law arises as an expression of the ideology of domination-submission, one of the ways in which that ideology establishes itself against the primal ideology, the one closest to nature, that of expedience. Crime comes into existence when expedient activities are condemned by domination-submission. If this is indeed so then, since the expedient ideology is the one with which everybody begins social life, we shall expect to find the strongest tendency towards unrestricted expedience, and therefore towards the activities distinguished as criminal, among the young, those who have not yet had full opportunity to move on to domination-submission. The figures support this expectation.

Young people under 17 account for one in four convictions or cautions for indictable offences and for one in three burglaries, and the peak age of criminality now stands at 15. [2] This is no new development. In 1975, of those arrested for violent crime 62 per cent were aged twenty or less, and almost half of those arrested for burglary, and theft of or from motorcars, were under seventeen. [3]

Since children of under ten are hardly capable of these activities, “twenty years old or younger” has to be read as between ten and twenty, and “under seventeen” as between ten and seventeen. These groups form a small minority of the total population, so the concentration of law-breaking tendencies among them is much higher than appears from the raw percentages.

Experience of children and young people shows them lighthearted, playful, irresponsible, generous, easily influenced, adventurous, friendly, careless of possessions. It is hard to link them with the threatening figures of grasping, purposeful evil called up by such terms as ‘burglar’ and ‘criminal,’ but their characteristics fit well with the observation that there is no crime in nature. In the first human communities, too, crime was unknown; anybody persisting in anti-social behaviour was likely to be killed, but as elimination of a nuisance, not as punishment, and no guilt attached to the killers.

It is not so much those who break the law who are deviating from natural behaviour, but rather the law-abiding citizens. Civilisation and morality, after all, are not natural products. Ever since civilisation began the legal system has been failing to stamp out crime, and the reason seems to be that it does not, as it claims to do, represent the whole community, but only those who have reached the ideology of domination. To the largest of all ideological groups, the expedients, it appears as an imposition, something which, as they gain experience, they usually find it advisable to submit to, but not consonant with their own tendencies. Expression of any ideology entails repression of others (the resulting tensions motivate social development), and the expedient is not immune. If society is to survive, and afford opportunities for the expression of the more sophisticated ideologies, then the primal one has to be repressed. But when we recognise that the tendencies in question are better understood as natural than as evil, our chosen procedures are more likely to be considerate of the people affected. They are also more likely to be successful.

[1] Sunday Times 11 Feb
[2] Sunday Times 4 Feb 90, emphasis added.
[3] Mark R. 1978 In the Office of Constable London: Collins, 187.

from Ideological Commentary 44, March 1990.