Protection, containment, and restitution – a liberal vision of criminal justice

Increasing crime rates are always cause for concern, but the UK’s pathetically low rates of crime solving are making the issue impossible to ignore. Everyone who lives in London will be aware of many cases of phone or bike theft where the Police made very little effort to reclaim the stolen property never mind prosecute the people responsible. Indeed, just 1.7 per cent of reported bike theft cases result in successful prosecution.

The bike theft issue is just one piece of evidence that property crimes have effectively been decriminalised in the UK. In 2021, over one million thefts and burglaries went unsolved. Peoples’ property is, it seems, free real estate for criminals.

Violent crime and property crime have well-established negative impacts beyond the victimisation of innocent people. High crime erodes social trust, it deters people from economic activity at night, forces people to spend money they otherwise wouldn’t spend on fixing and repairing damaged property or moving away from high-crime areas.

There is nothing illiberal about tackling crime: it fulfils our moral responsibility to defend the innocent from violence and is an essential component of a strong economy.

The first thing a liberal criminal justice approach should emphasise is that the police only ought to be dealing with threats to life, liberty, and property. Once the police start prosecuting victimless offences, they become a damaging violent cartel of their own. This means decriminalising drug possession and sale and ending government restrictions on speech for example.

Not only is this morally sound, but it may also have a positive effect on enforcement of other crimes. There is an opportunity cost for each police officer who sits at a desk monitoring the internet for ‘grossly offensive’ Tweets when they could be patrolling the streets or solving a crime. Indeed, a reduction in overzealous, politically-motivated speech policing may be one way to restore public trust in the police who have created a type of ‘anarcho-tyranny’, whereby people are mercilessly investigated for peaceful speech while robbers are allowed to roam with impunity.

So once law enforcement is focused on enforcing the right laws, the primary function of policing should be protection from crime and minimising the cost to each victim.

The first thing done to address this should be putting more bobbies back on the beat. One of the only ways in which police can deter crime is through visibility. A systematic review of the evidence showed that 80 per cent of studies concluded that increased police patrols in high crime areas reduced criminal activity compared to other high crime locations targeted. One study found a 31 per cent reduction in property crimes in hot spots patrolled by marked cars.

Consistent patrols also increase the police’s readiness to respond to crime calls. Even ‘priority one’ calls took an average of 16.5 minutes for the police to arrive at crime scenes in 2022, a nine per cent increase compared with 2018.

With response times often meaning the difference between success or failure for criminals, there is no excuse for not allowing individuals to take back more control of their own protection. The present legal regime around self-defence does too little to protect those acting in self-defence, expecting victims to weigh up a whole set of legal balancing tests before acting to defend themselves and their property from criminals. This should be altered to provide certainty to crime victims that there will be an exceedingly high legal bar necessary to prosecute them for actions in self-defence.

Private security companies should be empowered with the same legal rights as police to restrain criminals to defend peoples’ property and the government should consider relaxing restrictions on the ownership of certain controlled weapons on peoples’ own property.

Once a crime has been committed, there should be no question of each, and every crime allegation being investigated as far as the evidence allows. Again, there is a role for the private sector here. Individuals should be allowed to hire private detectives to investigate crime and those private investigators given the same access to judges to obtain warrants for searches and evidence. If police cannot offer adequate investigations, then the government should provide victims a voucher to find a private entity which can.

Once a criminal is charged and found guilty, the focus of sentencing should not be punishment or deterrence – neither of which are particularly effective in reducing crime – but containment and restitution.

A restitution-based approach would give victims a more active role in delivering justice. They should be able to press for monetary or asset transfers from their aggressor to help mitigate the impact of the crime. The value of the transfer and the time over which it must be paid should be adjudicated by judges and juries.

There are, however, many cases of crime where society-at-large has an interest in seeing the perpetrators prevented from reoffending. Indeed, the ‘power law of crime’ tells us that most offences are committed by a small number of repeat perpetrators. A 30-year study of crime in Sweden estimated that 1 per cent of the population commits 63 per cent of all violent crimes. A clear majority of convictions in the USA and UK are given to those with a criminal record.

Simply containing this small segment of the population who overwhelmingly commit violent crime should be the priority of the criminal justice system. Sentences to those with one or two prior convictions should be far longer than those with first time convictions for similar offences. Prisons should be perfectly humane with various opportunities for self-improvement and rehabilitation for those who wish to turn their lives around while in prison.

The focus of our criminal justice efforts must be empowering police and individuals to defend victims against criminal acts and increasing our capacity to successfully prosecute them after the fact. Once criminals are found guilty of offences, victims should have a say in demanding compensation to help put their lives back on track and repeat criminals must be humanely separated from society to ensure that the innocent are not terrorised by the aggressors again in future.

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