Crime prevention? Do not tackle poverty
What is the alternative to repressive crime control policy? Social policy seems the usual response, but is it really more social?
A month ago I was asked by the Rotterdam committee of the Socialist Party (SP) to speak at a debate evening with the challenging title ‘The Danger of Safety’. The SP signals that the current liberal-conservative approach to crime is increasingly repressive, punitive and often with exclusionary consequences. What is the alternative?
While the political Right seems more inclined to promote a harsh ‘law and order’ strategy, the Left inclines towards social policies. That is, programmes aimed at education, work and social participation should keep people away from deviancy and criminal careers. The focus on welfare-like strategies is not surprising, perhaps, given that common crime is usually associated with deprived and marginalised groups (the unemployed and homeless, ethnic minority youths, and those living in deprived neighbourhoods). In addition, the Left has often seemed afraid to talk about the crimes of the underprivileged for fear of stigmatisation, and thus felt the need to stress that crime policy should not punish but alleviate deprivation.
But social policy is not necessarily a true alternative response to the exclusionary law and order policies when it leaves the alleged link between deprivation and criminal behaviour unchallenged. Arguing in favour of social policy may even reinforce the common sense and pernicious idea that there is something wrong with people living in poverty that leads them to ‘misbehave’ and commit crimes. As with law and order policies, social policy as a means of general prevention directs our attention to common crimes in the street. While welfare-like crime policy strategies address deprivation – which may indeed cause some, but not all, people to commit crimes – they do nothing to change inequality in recognition. That is, such policies may even reinforce the idea that working and consuming citizens are ‘better’ citizens because they would behave properly. Of course, we have plenty examples to the contrary and any criminology textbook will tell you that there are countless reasons to break the law. Advocating education and work as a type of general crime prevention strategy risks making a lack of education and poverty suspicious.
Measuring people against the ideal of the working and consuming citizen and saying that deviancy would stop if only ‘they’ (the underprivileged) would be more like ‘us’ (the middle class) is what criminologist Jock Young calls ‘liberal othering’. Welfare-like strategies sound, at first, social. I admit that before reading Young’s books, I thought this was the right approach to the common crime problem. Fundamentally, however, liberal othering is based on a perception of ‘them’ versus ‘us’ that is based on and feeds unequal recognition: it makes deprivation condemnable and suspicious.
This, of course, is not to say that social policy is no good at all. But rethinking social policy as a type of crime control made me wonder: if a social response to crime wishes to avoid the impression that deviancy is a problem of the underprivileged in particular, would it perhaps be better to unlink social policy from crime control? Social policy that aims to transform underprivileged people (‘them’ into ‘us’) in the hope that criminal behaviour will decline, can only continue to stigmatise. Social policy, then, is no better than the repressive law and order policies which, in Loïc Wacquant’s words, punish the poor.