Crime and punishment II

[Green Left Weekly, #665, April 26, 2006]

Every society deals with crime and punishment in its own special way. Modern capitalism, for all the ludicrous claims of its media hacks and propagandists, is a class-divided society based on the exploitation and oppression of the many by the very few. It ceaselessly generates crime at all levels.

In the first place, irrespective of the legality or otherwise of its activities according to the statute book — and after all, the bosses write the laws and largely determine their efficacy — capitalism is an anti-social system, which fundamentally works to enrich a handful of millionaires at the expense the working-class mass of the population.

Secondly, a lot of normal capitalist behaviour is directly criminal — that is, the bosses freely flout their own laws — as the recent AWB scandal shows quite clearly. Moreover, big crime (the Mafia, the drug trade or whatever) is actually a "legitimate" (normal) sector of the economy, distinguished by a very high rate of profit and a tendency to settle problems by killing people.

Smaller-scale crime — by petty criminals or drug-addicted people trying to finance their habits — is also an inescapable feature of the system. Social decay (homelessness, drug addiction, family break-up, mental illness) only intensifies this problem. Violence against women is also endemic, the result of women's oppression and second-class status under capitalism coupled with sexist ideology and social breakdown.

There are some real problems and some genuinely horrible crimes, but the corporate media and capitalist politicians exaggerate these for ideological and political reasons. They want to legitimise the police and to justify more cops and more police powers. They want to divert people's attention away from the capitalist private profit system — which is the real source of all crime — and turn people against each other, towards seeking retribution from "criminals" and supporting harsher sentencing.

There is no doubt that we are moving to a more repressive system. The new federal and state "anti-terror" laws are moving us into the foothills of a police state. Many elections today are law-and-order auctions as Lib-Lab politicians compete in advocating ever-more cops and ever-harsher penalties. Sentences are more severe, those convicted spend more time in jail and prison populations are soaring.

The "victims of crime" movement has two sides to it: the desire for help and compensation from the state is legitimate but the law-and-order aspect — the desire for vengeance and harsher sentences — is reactionary. It can only divert popular feeling and turn people against each other rather than the system.

The ever-growing prison system imposes a huge burden on society. It consumes funds which could be spent on socially useful things (such as health, education, public housing, transport and environmental repair). But it is useful for capitalism: it provides a source of slave labour and generates profits for the so-called "correctional" industry.

Socialist justice

How would a socialist society deal with crime and punishment?

Two periods must be distinguished here. If a workers government came to power — as a result of a crisis and a vast popular upsurge — and set about transforming the economy and society, then this would clearly be a transitional period when extensive elements of the old society would intermingle with the new. But as the years and decades passed and the nightmare of class society faded, a wholly new social outlook would develop.

For a start, the laws of the socialist state would be a lot briefer and simpler than those of capitalist society. Most laws under capitalism concern the defence of capitalist property and the regulation of relations between capitalists. The elimination of capitalism — putting the economy in the hands of society — would mean that the socialist statute book would be a lot thinner than the old one.

Litigation madness would disappear. Once people’s welfare was guaranteed (by adequate provision of healthcare, social support, housing, etc.), suing for damages would no longer be necessary.

Once the capitalists who are the main users of the legal system no longer existed, the current swollen legal caste would become a thing of the past. While there would still be a need for legal professionals (judges and lawyers), this group would undergo fundamental changes in its selection, make-up, training and outlook.

Capitalism promotes the fiction that judges are "independent". In reality, they are part of the apparatus of the ruling class, extremely well-paid and carefully sifted and trained to make sure they are reliable. Under socialism, while judges would have to be trained in the law, the aim would be to make them subject to election and recall (like all important office-holders).

Capitalist "justice" depends largely on money. If you have a lot of money you get a lot of justice; if you have no money, you get very little. Along with this, the capitalist legal system is often grindingly slow. All this would change. The socialist legal system would be simplified and streamlined, making it easily accessible to the population and putting an end to all delays in the administration of justice.

Finally, we would expect that as time passed and the new society consolidated itself, the legal system would become simpler. As life became more comfortable, civilised and cultured, there would be less and less need for it. More and more, communities and groups of people would themselves solve those minor problems that arose.

Enlightened penal methods

Under capitalism, reactionaries of all stripes — from Lib-Lab politicians on the make to right-wing radio shock-jocks — push for harsher sentences and stricter prison regimes. Socialism would break decisively with this vile outlook. The whole system of penology would be completely changed.

Firstly, since crime is fundamentally a social problem, once capitalism had been eliminated and society began to develop in a genuinely human and enlightened direction, crime will more and more become a thing of the past. But in the meantime, the criteria for sentencing will surely be twofold: to protect society and to the rehabilitate the offender. Punishment should have absolutely nothing to do with it whatsoever.

Prison — deprivation of liberty — would be used only as a last resort. Wherever possible, alternatives would be used: conditional or suspended sentences; the obligation to community service of some kind; or requiring offenders to attend an educational institution. Social censure itself would be a powerful inducement to reform and would often render prison unnecessary. And more and more, minor offences would be handled by community tribunals made up of the offender's peers.

Furthermore, even when people were actually imprisoned, their experience would be vastly different to today. Capitalist prisons are bleak warehouses of misery, faithfully reflecting the class society that created them. Violence, sexual assault and drug use are endemic. Capitalist jails don't rehabilitate anyone.

Socialism would be radically different. Even when deprived of liberty, prisoners would be enrolled in educational and vocational programs; they would be provided with meaningful, properly paid work; regular conjugal and family visits would be facilitated; proper healthcare would be provided; and when prisoners were released every effort would be made to re-integrate them into the community.

Eventually, with the passage of time, as social antagonisms and violence between people withered away, prisons — even in this enlightened incarnation — would also fade away and exist only in the history books.

Is this profoundly attractive vision actually achievable? Socialists think it is. Capitalism is a criminal system, a permanent conspiracy against the people in the interests of a handful of plutocrats. It practices crime on a gigantic scale and ceaselessly breeds criminality. Get rid of a system based on greed and humane and enlightened vistas only imaginable today will open up as realistic prospects.