291. "Community Watch," The Guardian, (June 28, 1997), p.21. Also published: "Oui, c'est la plus hui," Courrier International, (9/22/97). Also published: "Faut-il reinventer le pilori?" Courrier International, No. 365, (August 21, 1997), p. 27. "Straftater solien gekenzeichnet werden," Die Weltwoche, (October 30, 1997), (October 30, 1997), p. 5.
What should Jack Straw do about crime? Humiliate criminals and build gated communities? Amitai Etzioni suggests some radical law and order changes
THE way one thinks about and deals with crime depends on one's assumptions about human nature. If one assumes that people are good by nature, as many liberals do, then one blames conditions in society for ill-conduct. Giving people jobs - well-paying jobs, and not dead-end ones - is the most obvious treatment for anti-social behaviour. Education, rehabilitation and psychotherapy are close seconds.
But if one shares the assumption of social conservatives (from the religious right to Michael Howard) that people have strong aggressive and sexual impulses, then one seeks ever stronger measures of law and order. In the US, Steve Forbes campaigned in favour of one strike and you're out. Yet there is a mountain of social -science evidence to support a third, communitarian, position: infants are born without values (there are no altruistic genes) but, given the proper moral infrastructure, they can acquire values.
The building blocks of such an infrastructure are well known. Historically they have included families, schools, and communities (which encompass places of worship and voluntary associations). From this viewpoint, the sharp rise in crime in western societies is due to the weakening of all these moral elements. The family has clearly declined, and no new social agency has taken its place. Whatever one thinks about child-care centres, their focus is on custodial care, perhaps learning, but hardly on moral education. Schools in Britain still do a fair job of character-building, but as pluralism rises they are under increasing pressure to be value-neutral.
The sad fact is that even when families and schools are functioning to perfection as values-transmitters, as the moral agents of society they do not suffice. This takes us back to the pesky question of human nature. It is impossible to expunge all anti-social urges: we all occasionally experience aggressive feelings, inappropriate sexual desires and selfish inclinations. The best families and schools can do - and this is crucial for our understanding of crime and how to deal with it - is to develop a conscience that serves as a counterweight. Human nature is condemned to an eternal struggle between these urges (which make us offend mores and often laws) and our conscience.
Most important, how law-abiding (and good) we are as adults is very much determined by the extent to which the conscience we acquired as children receives external reinforcement. This is particularly effective when it comes from those in whom we have an emotional investment: members of our communities. The stronger the communal bonds and the more they support pro-social behaviour, the more we are able to curb our urges, and the lower the level of crime. This is why we are all so surprised at crime in a small, tight-knit community, such as Dunblane.
The crimes I am talking about include not merely street violence, but also child and spousal abuse, white-collar crimes (embezzlement), corporate crime and political corruption. Crime occurs in all social classes, not only in inner cities. While communities can curb even the most serious violent crimes, they are particularly effective in minimising most other crimes, releasing resources to fight the hard core.
Tony Blair's anti-crime programme, as drafted before his election, was successful in deflecting Tory accusations that Labour was soft on crime. Its focus on moving police from behind desks to the streets, "zero tolerance" for petty crimes, and fast-track punishment for persistent youth offenders, leaves plenty of room to make it more communitarian. The Government programme could now take into account that crime is best prevented from the beginning rather than deterred by punishment after the fact. And that if one simply arrests most kinds of criminals (for instance, drug-dealers), other people soon take their place. Both issues are best addressed when members of communities censure anti-social behaviour.
To mobilise communities to censure crime strongly, they must be treated as true partners with the police. Community policing does not quite cut it. While it is helpful to move more police on to the beat, it is also necessary to change the demographic composition of local police forces so they will not differ too much from the communities they are supposed to co-operate with. Community leaders must be involved in setting police priorities. Should the police concentrate on drug-dealers or on school safety? Should they focus on outsiders or entrap kerb-crawlers?
Some communities cannot be reached because they are hostile in general and to the police in particular. Yet in some instances, for example in Los Angeles, even gangs have been won over to help curb violence. Many disadvantaged communities already realise that they bear the brunt of crime. If they could be convinced that the police would deal fairly with them, they would be more likely to collaborate. Recently we learned that the curbing of quality-of-life offences - minor crimes such as playing cassette players loudly in public places, graffiti, and aggressive begging - is surprisingly effective in reducing more serious offences. Such drives re-establish community mores and mobilise the community to back crime-fighting.
Stigma is a useful device for addressing criminal behaviour; unfortunately it ruffles the feathers of liberals. They speak of returning to putting people in stocks. But while most everyone would agree that it would be a better world if one could prevent crime only by positive incentives, realistically, negative sanctions are unavoidable. Stigma is the least costly and the most - yes, the most - humane.
A young accountant is caught for the second time having embezzled money from a pension fund. Send him to jail, and he is likely to graduate with even less respect for the law, be subject to punitive conditions, and carry the stigma of a criminal conviction, all at a high public cost. Make him carry a sign in his neighbourhood (as a judge recently did in the US ) and he will be deterred from repeating his offence - at minimal public cost.
ANOTHER way for communities to prevent crime is for them to wall themselves in - troubling, because communities sometimes employ these gates to keep out those of a different class or race. One notes that affluent communities and public institutions already have stringent entry controls. I cannot get into Parliament, the BBC, the High Court, and well-off people's residences, without identifying myself and explaining my business. Working-class neighbourhoods should be allowed the same protection, given that they are the likely victims of violent crime and that the state has not succeeded in keeping crime at bay. Gates and other methods of shielding target areas have proven surprisingly effective.
Gates have another constructive effect. They can help build community. When a neighbourhood in Dayton, Ohio, was flooded with drug-related crimes, gates - only to cars, not to pedestrians - blocked the traffic from the highway and divided the neighbourhood into six cul-de-sacs. Each of the six areas developed its own identity and social web. Children were heard to comment on the way to school that they must behave themselves because throwing stones or yelling aloud was not welcome in these parts. The undesirable effects of gated communities can be avoided by ensuring that neighbourhoods treat all who seek entry in the same manner. One still would prefer open communities, but gates seem necessary until crime, including terrorism, is better controlled.
Some pundits insist that the real issue is the exaggerated fear of crime, rather than crime itself. Fear is more pervasive in communities where crime rates are relatively lower. (A recent survey - which relies on self-reporting - found that in England more people reported themselves to have been a victim of crime last year than in the US, although crime rates in the US are several times higher.) This fear has barely declined even as crime has been reduced.
Many liberals draw from this the somewhat presumptuous conclusion that the members of such communities are irrational (the term "hysterical" is sometimes used) and need reassurance, rather than more protection. But communities are sensible to worry about crime, even if, after rising dramatically (by more than five times between 1960 and 1990 in England and Wales), crime rates have now levelled off or been curtailed.
Crime has such devastating and lasting effects that limited changes in statistics do not much matter. Parents who yearn for a day when their children will be able to play outside unsupervised derive little comfort from a fall in crime of 11 per cent. People won't walk at night in the "wrong" parts of a town simply because the murder rate is not as high as it used to be.
Among the more innovative ideas is an approach highlighted during the first Talk to Tony town meeting: restorative justice. It calls for offenders to meet their victims in the presence of other community members. The offenders are expected to apologise as well as perform community service that will help compensate the victim - for instance, restoring their vandalised property. The community determines the nature and scope of the compensatory service.
UNTESTED so far is an idea from the Communitarian Network, which advocates sharing with communities savings that result from falling crime. The plan, "it takes a village to prevent a crime", offers communities a deal: it gives the community an estimate of the public cost caused by crimes committed on its turf. If the community agrees to fight crime, and if as a result crime falls in the following year, the community is awarded half the savings. These can be used for shared purposes, from building a playground to a swimming pool, but not for projects for the benefit of individuals. This further enhances the communal bonds, which in turn enables the community to combat crime.
These measures are not meant to supplant the conservatives' law-and-order measures or the liberals' job-creation. Communities are partners which can shoulder an important part of maintaining public safety, but they can hardly combat it single-handedly. One should note that for many crime-fighting purposes, police are over-skilled and expensive. It is best to draw as much as possible on alternative sources, and sentence first offenders to community work rather than jail.
When it comes to policing, a certainty of punishment is more effective than extensive punishment, and communities would be better off if the numbers of cops and courts were increased, rather than the number of jail cells. Jails should accommodate more people, for shorter sentences, to better effect. Providing the right jobs can significantly reduce crime; unfortunately such jobs are difficult for governments to produce, especially for the areas in which violent crime is most common. Yet law-and-order and socio-economic cures have long been the focus of the debate over the best ways to deal with crime. These have overshadowed the importance of community as a reinforcer of pro-social mores. Whatever portion of crime community-based methods can prevent, they eliminate it in ways that are low in cost and humane.
AMITAI ETZIONI is an American sociologist and writer known for promoting "communitarian thinking." He is founder of the Communitarian Network and author of The Spirit of Community (Simon and Schuster). He was visiting centennial professor at the London School of Economics. His book, The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society, is published this week by Profile Books (pounds 12.99)