Committing a crime is always a choice. That’s why the primary, proper response to crime is not explanations or excuses, it is punishment – proportionate, meaningful punishment.
This statement from David Cameron exemplifies how many feel about crime and justice in England and Wales – that the main goals of the system should be to punish those who commit crime, and that crime is the result of people making rational decisions as to whether the “benefit” of committing a crime will outweigh the chance of being caught and punished. I think that “rational actor” model is probably right for some online crime. But it is wrong for most other crime, much of which is spontaneous, committed by people with complex health and welfare issues, in particular social contexts. It is a tall order to persuade people to move away from thinking punishment is only the answer to crime. But Transform Justice, in partnership with the Standing Committee for Youth Justice and the Criminal Justice Alliance, has been trying a new approach – to try to reframe messages about criminal justice. A first phase of research has been completed, mapping the gaps between what the criminal justice campaigners would like to communicate and how the public actually feels about crime and justice. To campaigners it can make slightly depressing reading, but there are also reasons to be hopeful – people do understand the value of rehabilitation, and that peers and environment can have an impact on crime. The next stage is to work out how we should frame our messages given what we now understand.