Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Liverpool Unites?

The ‘Liverpool Echo’ has initiated a purple ribbon campaign for Rhys Jones called ‘Liverpool Unites’. The four aims are – more police: tougher sentencing for possession of firearms; a better witness protection programme and gun controls.

At first glance you couldn’t disagree with any of the demands, but will it end gun crime? There was a police crackdown last year in Norris Green with many people sent to jail as a result. However, as one local youth worker noted, “a younger group has come up to take their place.”

What does the Liverpool Council ward profile tell us about Norris Green? 40% of people of working age are unemployed, 44% don’t have any qualifications, household income in 2004 was £17,115, against a Liverpool average of £22,511 with a national figure of £23,244. When it comes to the government’s Neighbourhood Statistics, out of 32,428 Super Output Areas (SOAs) half of Norris Green is in the most deprived 1%, the rest is in the bottom 5% and one small area (the ‘posh end’) is in the bottom 10%.

Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime?

You can’t say that it’s simply all about poverty, the counter argument is that despite the mass unemployment of the 1930s crime was lower. However, on the other side there wasn’t the blanket advertising of an aspirational society, in the 1930s most homes didn’t have anything worth nicking and the unemployed didn’t have mobile phones or i-Pods to steal. Gang culture has actually bought into the aspirational society they want a share of designer fashions, fast cars and bling.

Violent crime affects people in different ways and it’s easy for middle class people in nice houses in their tree lined avenues pontificating about crime, they don’t have to suffer from nuisance neighbours or feral children patrolling the streets. A few years ago a friend of mine who was an active trade unionist lost his son, there was a fight outside their house and he’d gone out as a peacemaker, he ended up getting stabbed. His father was understandably devastated and was mixed up in some fairly dubious ‘law ‘n’ order’ campaigns.

There was a seminal moment during the 1988 American presidential elections when a journalist asked the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis whether he would want the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered. Dukakis went into liberal academic mode and warbled on about the statistical ineffectiveness of capital punishment. He just came over as a cold fish. If it happened to my wife? Yes, I’d personally want to gouge the eyes out of the perpetrator, however we’re not talking about the vengeance of the individual but how a civilised society should deal with horrific crimes. An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

Chastened by Dukakis’s experience, when Bill Clinton was campaigning in the 1992 elections he went back to Arkansas to watch the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, who had an IQ of 70. Though courts decided Rector was mentally competent to be put to death by lethal injection, evidence suggests otherwise. Rector's prison guards called him “the Chickman” because he thought the guards were throwing alligators and chickens into his cell. On the night of his execution, Rector saved the slice of pecan pie to be eaten before bedtime, not realizing his death would come first. Rector was executed by lethal injection. It took medical staff, with Rector’s help, more than fifty minutes to find a suitable vein.

The tabloid press have done their best to completely hijack the ‘law ‘n’ order’ debate by the fundamental dishonesty of latching onto personalities. There was the campaign to ‘Free Tony Martin’ and more recently the News of the World crusade for ‘Sarah’s Law’ - the public would be informed of the location of convicted paedophiles. Almost all professional associations from the police to social workers were opposed. Why? Because paedophiles would go ‘underground’. A more successful experiment has come from church groups in America based on the notion of ‘keep your enemy close’. A small group ‘adopt’ an offender and meet with them every week. It has been controversial with some denominations, because there is an insistence that church attendance is compulsory.

The ‘law ‘n’ order’ campaign starts with a pretty bleak view of humanity – blanket coverage by CCTV, more police, ID cards, compulsory finger printing. The slogans? ‘Keep off the streets!’ ‘Lock yourself up!’ ‘Distrust your neighbour!’

Born out of the most horrendous circumstances, there are more inspiring alternatives. In 1993 an IRA bomb went off in Warrington, twelve year old Tim Parry and three year old Jonathan Ball were killed. Colin and Wendy Parry set up a Peace Foundation, they wanted to know why another human being could undertake such a despicable act, they met politicians and para-military leaders in Northern Ireland and encouraged children from both religious communities to visit Warrington.

The Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball Youth Centre is an absolutely inspiring place. I was a youth worker in inner city Liverpool and we had a converted air raid shelter with the strip lighting, it gave it a more than passing resemblance to the film location of Prisoner in Cell Block H.

Their permanent legacy is one of hope and reconciliation.

I’ll sign off with an international crime statistic – the more equal the income distribution in a society and the greater the chance of social mobility - the lower the crime rate.


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