Patrick Wintour reports in yesterday's Guardian that the government is preparing a green paper which may allow local people to vote on what form of punishment is handed out to convicted criminals in their neighbourhood. This would apply to low-level crimes such as disorderly conduct. (Daily Mail coverage here).
It does have the unfortunate feel of government by the miserable standards of contemporary broadcasting. As I understand it, a broadcast programme can have expert judges dismissing a comic-but-flat-footed celebrity in a televised dancing competition to the resounding displeasure of millions, who then overturn the decision by the power of popular vote. Be sure the message did not go unnoticed in Whitehall.
Maybe it's just one of those 'test-the-water' ideas which policy makers dribble from time to time, to see if anyone's paying attention. But it has its justification in Louise Casey's review of community engagement in the justice system, which I mentioned a few weeks ago.
I note also that the green paper will be published (this spring) by the Ministry of Justice, not by the Home Office; and that Communities Secretary Hazel Blears is said to be supportive. So it may well come to pass in some form.
Watch out for the option of online voting to spice it up. A few moments thought about just who would be motivated to review thoroughly the available evidence in any given local case and make a judgement on it, should be enough to shiver the spine a little. The potential for amplifying local social divisions, rather than stimulating cohesion, is not trivial. It could force people to 'take more of an interest in local issues' (and is this the best way to achieve that objective?) or more likely it could lead to more people withdrawing from local affairs in despair.
But let's say a senior civil servant, having worked hard promoting this policy measure, is making their way home one evening in spring. Turning the corner of their home street they are accosted by a local person coming out of a pub.
Believing themselves under attack and lashing out, the official's elbow strikes the other's head (who, your honour, was just asking for a light). Down he goes, striking his head against the kerb. Blood on the pinstripes, sirens in the night, intensive care, incensed relatives and furious friends who, ah, happen to live nearby. The case comes to court: the official is found to have acted with unreasonable violence. Invited to decide on the punishment, how do local people vote? Would you be ready to accept the outcome yourself?
Wintour writes in the Guardian:
The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, said that she favoured local people being given a much clearer choice in deciding what form of community punishment is imposed in their neighbourhood.
['Community punishment'? What does that mean?]
Smith told the Guardian it was wrong that Casey, former head of the Respect unit, was not retained in the Home Office but was moved to the Children's Department soon after Gordon Brown became prime minister. As a result the government lost focus on antisocial behaviour, Smith argues.
Three separate points strike me, to do with the misguided respect agenda, understandings of the role of expertise in governance, and the historical precedent for locally-meted punishment.
(i) The government ought to refocus on civil relations, but it was right to drop the Respect agenda. It was a half-baked set of policies which used disrespect, through an emphasis on shaming, to promote a peculiarly partial approach to civil relations. In particular, it completely failed even to acknowledge that our society is riddled with sanctioned disrespectful behaviour on the part of 'respectable' citizens. More, if more is needed, in chapter 1 of this.
(ii) In three or four presentations last year I used a slide about the three roles in governance, emphasising the need for a balance of influence between elected representative, citizen, and public sector officer. I expressed the concern, which seems to be recognised by people I've spoken to, that most of us emerge from our education system with a feeble understanding of the role of officers (expertise) in local democracy - how important their expertise is in areas too specialised for most of the rest of us to follow.
Broadly speaking, this lack of understanding is reinforced by our popular media. They bash our public services at every opportunity and central government stifles support - for social workers, teachers, probation workers and many others trying to compensate for all sorts of social shortfall.
If this new initiative erodes the ability of the courts to apply their expertise - for instance, in an understanding of research which explains the effects of different punishments in different circumstances - it could be diminishing democracy, not enhancing it. And as one of the commentators on Comment is free puts it:
surely we vote for people who then represent us -
not vote for people who then say "i can't be bothered - YOU do it"
(iii) Sometime last year I got interested in the system of gebuurten developed in medieval european cities of Belgium and the Netherlands. These were neighbourhood associations and in Ghent each covered an average of 45-50 households. All adult inhabitants were full members of their gebuurte, regardless of their wealth or social status. Heads of households elected a 'dean' who could exact punishment through fines for a wide range of offences related to anti-social behaviour and community norms.
The deans' role was to keep peace and order. They carried out a form of locally-accountable justice, and the system survived in cities like Ghent and Leuven for something like 500 years. I hope to be able to research the geburrten in more detail in future, because I suspect they point to an achieved equilibrium in terms of maintaining local involvement in justice. I'm particularly curious about one possible implication, suggesting that neighbourhood online networks might function most effectively if they include a governance role.
Meanwhile, back to the future: I'm not at all averse to this government exploring as far as it can the limits of local involvement in public services, in fact I applaud that. But I would rather they did so with a better record of having listened when arguments built up against them.
Criminalising kids: questions about risk and respect