Tuesday 19 June 2012

Harm and priorities.

I saw the criminologist David Wilson on TV this morning, debating the issue of whether prisoners should be allowed to vote. He thinks that the vast majority of them should.

He said a couple of things that I'd like to pick apart here.

Firstly, he was at pains to remind everyone as often as he could that he is a member and supporter of the Labour Party. Honestly, he slipped it into the conversation more than the average Labour leader ever does. And by "slipped" I mean "pummelled". There's a reason I mention this, and I'll come back to it shortly.

Second, he mentioned that a lot of people currently in prison are there for essentially "harmless" crimes, and the example he gave of this was drug use.

Let's ignore the extreme disingenuousness of this argument. Let's ignore the fact that Professor Wilson wants the vote given to all but thirty-five prisoners in the UK, so his bringing up the example of those prisoners who are "harmless" is a red herring, a way of dodging the question he is really being asked, which is to provide a reason why all the decidedly non-harmless burglars and home invaders and muggers and rapists and child abusers who he knows full well are in prison should be allowed a say in the way we run our country. Let's ignore the fact that most drug users who commit no more crime than merely using drugs are these days generally fined or cautioned or even just ignored by the police, not imprisoned; the ones in prison are, for the most part, the ones who support their habit by dealing or stealing. Let's even ignore the fact that junkies' lack of damn-giving about anything but the next hit tends to make them act antisocially, so "merely" using drugs might involve such activities as (and here I'll take examples directly from my own personal experience) having a shit on my stairway because you can't be bothered going anywhere else, leaving dirty used syringes lying on my stairway because it doesn't occur to you to dispose of them safely, or standing outside my front door with your trousers round your knees injecting heroin into your penis because it doesn't occur to you that my desire not to see this when I open my door is any more important than your desire to get smack into your bloodstream. I didn't have kids at the time. If I had, they'd have seen all that. I did have a girlfriend, and she, reasonably enough, found it upsetting and threatening. My neighbours in the same close had kids, and they had to deal with the same shit. It's not fucking harmless.

Yeah, let's ignore all that. (And yes, I realise this is a rhetorical device and I'm not ignoring any of it at all. Sue me.) Let's look at the huge bloody great logical hole in Professor Wilson's reasoning.

Now, I admit that I could be wrong about this, but I don't think I'm exactly taking a wild stab in the dark when I presume that a fifty-five-year-old keen Labour supporter was in favour of economic sanctions against Apartheid South Africa. I certainly was. That being the case, here's what Professor Wilson believes:

If you went to your local greengrocer's in 1985 and bought an orange, thereby giving money to the murderous Apartheid regime in South Africa directly responsible for the trampling of the human rights of millions of innocent people, you were doing harm. This activity was so harmful that the Labour Party actively campaigned for the Government of the day to ban it.

If you go to your local drug-dealer and buy some heroin, thereby giving money to the murderous drug cartels directly responsible for (to pick just two of oh-so-many examples) the appallingly high murder rates in Mexico and Colombia, what you are doing is — Professor Wilson's word — harmless.

I may be cynical, but even I would expect a position taken by "Britain's leading criminologist" to have a bit more thought put into it than that.