Crime Policies; Dare to ask the basic questions
In the Netherlands more and more repressive crime policies are being introduced. However, the basic question 'is there a crime problem that should be tackled' is often not asked. An omission with undesirable consequences.
Last Thursday (12-4-2012) De Volkskrant (a Dutch national newspaper) opened with an article on the mistakes politicians made during the early stages of the credit crisis. One of the more striking conclusions was that the Dutch cabinet members failed to ask the basic questions. What is the full extent of the crisis and are drastic actions necessary to turn things around? In general, those questions were ignored, with ever-increasing financial consequences.
The same can be said about Dutch crime policies. Let’s take, for example, the new measures addressing Anti-social Behaviour on the street (ASB in short). The Dutch Minister of Justice and Security Ivo Opstelten defended these with arguments like ‘the government must demonstrate that it is capable of tackling ASB’ and ‘the people say enough is enough’. Other Dutch politicians also claimed that they had to react to reaffirm the ability of the government to control crime.
This is in line with David Garland’s ideas on the Culture of Control (2001). He states that these measures can best be described as ‘the government acting out’. The very fact of acting is enough. The ability of the government to control crime, however doubtful, is constantly emphasised. In order to keep the faith of the public in the democratic process, action against crime is believed to be necessary.
Although these reactions are not surprising - has a government ever admitted that they are unable to control crime? – , the basic assumptions are not questioned. For example, is ASB really a pressing issue? Do people in inner city areas feel ASB is on the increase and do they indeed demand a tougher approach from politicians?
Recent research shows that contrary to what politicians claim, people living in problem areas are not loudly demanding strong measures against street nuisance. Furthermore, the results show that the problems have not intensified, nor do inhabitants feel terrorised by ASB.
There is only one thing concerning ASB that has changed over the last decade; the media attention for street nuisance exploded. By giving ASB more attention (although the statistics do not justify this change) the media in a way ‘stimulated’ politicians into taking harsher measures than necessary and by doing so potentially escalating the problems of ASB. This process makes politicians who are afraid of being criticised in the media, followers rather than leaders of change. The results show that consequently, the increasing media attention for ASB has transformed the logic of politics. Should we worry about these developments? Should we care about these fact-free policies that appear to based on media attention only?
In general a policy process is complex and often obscure. Political actors patch together workable solutions to problems they encounter, coping with their workload, pleasing their voters, in other words; doing the ‘best’ job in view of the circumstances. However, with the new crime laws - that are often far-reaching and criminalising more everyday behaviour – politicians should be more reflective and they should dare to keep asking the basic questions; what is the extent of the problem and are new measures really necessary?
More information on the research