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Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 1983, 16, 242-243

PROTECTING THE COMMUNITY FIRST: A Rejoinder



John J. Ray

As the editor has asked me to reply to my critics in no more than 1500 words, I must perforce leave detailed consideration of crime statistics to another occasion. What I hope to do is then principally to re-emphasize the very simple proposition that my critics seem to find hard to grasp and which they seriously misinterpret.

I do not propose that prisons become less humane. Surely only bitterness (or retributiveness) could lie behind such a proposal and I am not bitter nor do I propose retribution. I see retribution as at best an unaffordable luxury for some victims. What I want is for the serious offenders to be kept out of circulation as long as possible. This was once done through the death penalty but the crookedness of so many of our modern-day police forces is such that surely no degree of certainty about guilt can now be arrived at that would justify such a final punishment.

I do not (like some of my critics) have any hope for the processes of rehabilitation. All I think we can do is to prevent offenders from becoming even more criminal while they are "inside". This can be done fairly well by preventing verbal contact with other prison inmates. Some of my critics think that this proposal amounts to an intensification of punishment. I am not proposing "solitary" and even if I were, it has yet to be shown that solitary confinement is seriously harmful. Many political prisoners in totalitarian countries seem to have survived it brilliantly even when it was accompanied by conditions that were otherwise very deprived and brutal. I propose that the "rule of silence" (towards other prisoners) that was once a feature of some British prisons during the Victorian era be brought back but I am not proposing that other Victorian conditions be brought back. I advocate free access to TV, phones, exercise equipment etc. As one of my critics rightly detects, my proposals would in fact increase the safety and comfort of prison life. If there is a retributive and deterrent aspect of my proposals, it consists of the greater length of sentence rather than the severity of the conditions under which it is served.

I realize, of course, that my proposals do entail at first sight much greater cost to the community. This is why I also add some proposals about reducing the number of criminals to whom custodial sentences should apply. I basically except from custodial sentencing all crimes for which restitution is possible. More specifically, I point to crimes of violence against the person (rape, murder, bashing etc) as the ones that should attract custodial sentences and I ask that such sentences be very much longer than they now are. In a word, I ask that our prison facilities be used only in those cases where they will do most good to the community. I ask that criminals from whom the community stands in little need of protection not be sent to gaol at all -- or if they are sent it be for very short periods (eg three months). I think that a community as wealthy as ours can fairly easily afford the odd fraud or robbery through load--sharing devices such as insurance or various sorts of government payout but can any reasonable society accept that its women be raped and its citizens maimed and murdered? It would obviously be desirable to prevent by the most effective means known (ie by permanent incarceration of all convicted offenders) all types of crime, but, given the limited resources any community can afford to allocate to the prison system, we have to be severely selective about whom we lock up. I claim that the "irreversibility" of a crime be our basic criterion. We cannot afford to let loose the people who commit crimes that have irreversible effects. Crimes that have reversible effects (eg robberies covered by insurance) are much less a matter for concern and do not therefore command the same priority in use of the community's scarce custodial facilities.

One of my critics says that if we locked up all offenders this would not prevent all crime as new offenders would continue to emerge. I would have thought that this was patently obvious but cannot see how this weakens my argument. Most crime is committed by recidivists and not letting out criminals once they are caught must surely by definition prevent recidivism and hence most crime. There will, of course, still be some crime (i.e. first offenders). I don't think I have a recipe for a crime-free society but I do think I have a recipe for a society that is much more crime free than the present one. Under my regime, the only crimes we would see much of would be ones whose effects we can reverse. Isn't that an improvement?

REFERENCE

Ray, J.J. (1983) Towards a more pragmatic penal system. Australian & New Zealand J. Criminology 16, 224-230. (Online in PDF format)






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