The lawful society

The sterile debate on crime and police numbers has obscured a major shift in the public’s response to crime. Britons have become “passive bystanders”, uninformed about crime and punishment and less likely to participate in maintaining justice than people in other countries. Lacking the real facts, the public has demanded “something is done”, resulting in Robocop justice, ever more centralised and technocratic. This move has made Britain the most expensive country to police in the world and has rendered citizens incapable.

When violence has increased as a proportion of all recorded crime from 8 per cent in 1997 to 20 per cent in 2008, it is unsurprising that these “passive bystanders” call for action. Without the federal systems or alternative bulwarks of local power other countries have, crime has been nationalised and politicised with the Home Secretary and sometimes the Prime Minister taking responsibility for every assault. The UK spends the largest amount on law and order as a proportion of total government spending, and as a percentage of GDP, of any other country in the OECD, overtaking the US in the last decade.

The failings of Robocop have been recognised by the political parties who have all attempted to spell out a localist agenda. In practice though this approach is one of the “colouring book”, with national politicians dictating parameters and targets for local action with only a small amount of autonomy allowed. Radical decentralisation has been consistently blocked by politicians and police keen to maintain their national power base.

A new way forward is required to transform Britons from passive bystanders to active citizens. In order to do this there must be an information revolution with details on prosecution strategies, offenders and correctional programmes available to the public on a granular level, as well as a full extension of existing crime mapping programmes. There should be locally elected Justice Commissioners, who people can hold accountable for the maintenance of order and pay for through local taxes. This must be balanced by the establishment of a National Bureau of Investigation. Maintaining lawfulness should be seen as part of the duty of every citizen, whose role should be to hold agents accountable and participate in the justice process.

These radical changes would unlock long overdue innovation. Local services could evolve, pooling the resources currently divided between prevention, prosecution, policing and correction. Local areas will experiment with different styles of policing and offender management. Local people will engage in a rich debate about the appropriate policies for their areas. Eventually criminal justice policy could be subsumed within a wider quality of life and wellbeing area.