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How can we tackle knife crime and yob culture?

JamesKnight300Network Norwich columnist James Knight discusses knife crime, yob culture and teenage breakdown.

We are in the middle of my Visions of New Beginnings series, but I want to break off from that for a week to talk about a subject which is dominating many of the news headlines at present - the problem of Youth Crime - ranging from the less serious crimes (antisocial behaviour, vandalism) through to more serious crimes (knife and gun crimes - often resulting in murder). 
Although the individual crimes are isolated incidents, they are also the concatenation of crisis conditions - conditions that are having, and have had for some time now, a very negative effect on young people in this country - many of whom are stuck in a life of persistent crime.
I think, and have thought for some time, that to confer upon a person the term 'recidivist' (a persistent re-offender, even after punishment) is not conducive to helping the person so accused. When we talk idly of a person 'relapsing' back into crime, we do little more than make a conjectural comment about their psychology. We are continually reading about recidivists in the newspapers - felons, some of whom have as many as 90 convictions to their name. It should be much more obvious than it is that the rehabilitation process (commendable when it is successful) is, in fact, failing in too many areas. 
There are people whose crimes are so heinous that they deserve to be incarcerated for life - of that there is no doubt. But there is a second string of recidivists, caught up in a circularity - a world of criminality, hopelessness, myopia and educational deprivation - men and women who, given a fair chance, could emerge from their plight into better things. But this success is largely conditioned by his or her own desires to change; that is, a person must want to change before a truly successful change for the better can occur. 
In writing this, I do not mean that a person who commits a crime should escape punishment - I mean that the punishment and the rehabilitation should serve two dialectic elements of the same system. To penalise a man simply because he deserves to be punished is not, by itself, a good thing (save for the deterring of others). Giving a bad man his deserts is mere barbarism unless we have a genuine desire to see him reformed and rehabilitated. 
It is true that the only interrelating point between punishment and justice is desert; thus we say that a criminal is given the right sentence if the sentence matches the crime. Whether the sentence befits the crime is not a matter of rehabilitation, just as the issue of reform is not a question about legal justice. If a man is to be rehabilitated, then our demand from the action is not that it will be an action of justice, it is that it will be a successful operation of reform - therefore the sphere of justice must take into account only what a criminal deserves and the sphere of humanitarianism must take into account how best we can improve this man. If we view a man's rehabilitation in the same way that we view the calculus, we will have dehumanised him and others like him. 
The demarcation will become more lucid if we enquire as to who can rightly determine what constitutes good rehabilitation when states of improvement are no longer held to derive their propriety from a man's psychology. In other words, unless we tackle the problem from the roots; unless we see the offender as human, as a man who needs our help; as a man tainted by his raw material and background, we shall never solve the problem of recidivism, nor the problem of so many people feeling unimportant and undervalued. 
I do not mean, of course, that utilitarian concessions should impinge upon our moral standards; but unless we see that the moral standard from which we distil our own ethics and systems of justice must itself include our responsibility to rehabilitate, we shall be living with double standards. 
We find here that we are faced with a moral dilemma. Let us say that a man commits a crime for which it is consensually understood that a ten-year prison sentence is a just verdict. Now let us say that we had some special prior knowledge that his ten-year sentence would bring about no positive change, but that a one year sentence would be enough to deter and rehabilitate him for life. Those calling out for justice would say that a one-year sentence was only a tenth of the sentence that he deserved, whereas those calling out for his cure from recidivism and, thus, his human improvement, would assert that the length of incarceration was secondary to the overall outcome. 
Having seen that the calls for justice can drown out the voices for rehabilitation and that the calls for rehabilitation can drown out the voices for justice, we must look to provide a system in which the latter entails the former; that is to say - the method of rehabilitation is itself predicated on a system in which the offender himself makes good of his rehabilitation by incorporating his own feelings of 'paying his debt' into the process. It should be observed that full rehabilitation can only really be carried out when the debt has been paid; that is, if the process is to be successful the victim (or victims) of crime must have, and are entitled to see, justice. 
Having said that the state should provide whichever method is necessary to assist in rehabilitation (therapy, medication, education, training programmes, etc), we must guard against the danger that crimes are looked upon as nothing but afflictions and should henceforth be treated in the same way that illnesses and diseases are treated. That would involve the awful system, comparable to that in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where subjects are reconstituted into automata based upon conjectural assumptions by physicians. This would be taking it too far into the other extreme. 
No successful society scares its citizens into behaving lawfully, and no successful society treats its citizens as automata. Thus, in order to create a better society in which we can celebrate lawfulness, it is going to be important that we help persistent offenders to become assimilated into society with a greater feeling of self-worth; after all, we have seen with some of our more prescient 20th century writers (Huxley, Orwell, Burgess) that a tyranny exercised solely for the good of its inhabitants may be the most repressive and reprehensible. Fallen men can never hope to rule as if they are gods; thus a tyranny which attempts to rule as though it is Divine in stature will often turn out to be more reprehensible than the fiends it hopes to make good. 
KnifeHandThe implications are equally great when we think of its effect on Christianity, for Christianity is seen by many (foolishly) as a disease which needs eradicating in favour of post-modern endeavour. Unless the distinction between a crime and an affliction remains clear, we might one day be ruled by a modern day Nero who goes all out to 'cure' people of their affliction by eradicating the belief systems to which they subscribe, as has happened in many of the Muslim governed countries. I do not, of course, think that this outcome is in the least bit likely - but it ought to be noticed what can happen when humans are used as means to an end without any consideration for their humanity. 
This is why I think it essential to resist the temptation to adopt false morality as a standard of justice. If a man's bad actions are merely his affliction then he cannot be forgiven for them and he cannot become a better man. Christ did not die for a man's asthma any more than He died for a man's red hair. If you force morality on people who have no chance of recognising it thus, they will never know their true state. Even forgiveness itself cannot be wholly extricable from justice and rehabilitation. Both of the needs are arms of the same being. 
We already posses the intuition (as moral philosophers use the term) to know the moral standard - that is, it is written on our hearts. Any proposed thought or action or activity is known by us to be morally right or wrong without any external addition. It is true that we get things wrong - or our muddled perception and lack of understanding of all the facts do cause us to make errors - but the moral standard is a rule of which we have a prior understanding. 
Questions such as 'Is it sensible to try to change people by X method or Y method?' are questions that fall under our utilitarian principles - that is, they are methods in which one finds ways that ether gravitate towards the moral good or recede from it. No action or innovation or methodology can be described as good or bad unless it is measured up against the prior standard. Thus the moral law which has been imparted to us by God is what we use to form the basis of all our jurisprudence. 
The one thing we cannot do, which some insensible people do try to do, is to ask if the standard is good. If good itself means 'in accordance with the standard' we cannot ask if the standard is good, any more than we can try to assemble parts of a car and ask if the system of making the car is itself correct. The system is the explanation of how to make it. To say the system is questionable is talk about something that isn't the car, and similarity to question the moral standard itself is to depart from the rubric of morality. 
Now we must be careful here not to confuse the 'standard' with our own developing ethicality. People today certainly understand a lot more about which things gravitate more closely towards the standard and which things recede from the standard than folk in other periods in history, but that does not mean that the standard has altered - for unless we admit an immutable and unchangeable standard, we will be in error when we approach the question of right and wrong. 
An easier way to understand this is to look at the subject of mathematics. At basic levels of mathematics, it is easy to agree on which sums are right and wrong. But we can only agree if we admit that there is a mathematical system that we use to talk about right and wrong sums. If a man says that 3 and 5 is 9 in the sense that he is offering it as an alternative truth rather than as an erroneous sum, he is, in stating this, suggesting a truth which is a departure from the mathematical system and is, therefore, speaking of something wholly different to mathematics. His statement goes further than being untrue - it becomes 'non-true'. His action is the same as a man who attempts to create a new kind of morality - he is attempting an impossibility. He might succeed in raising awareness on issues which help instill morality (such as issues regarding race, colour, ethnicity, nationality, disability, etc) - but in doing this he is not improving the moral standard itself.
The difficulty in questions of law and order and rehabilitation is whether we confine things like 'justice' and 'reform' to the primary fact (as in the moral standard) or to the secondary facts (such as systemic improvement and jurisprudence). Utility, in this case, can be taken to mean that which improves the law and the likelihood of people obeying the law. But it is quite easy to step too far over the other side and make the pursuance of good order an immoral thing. 
And notice that those who claim that goodness is something that should be pursued at all costs are very often the same people who treat happiness as a virtue (an incredibly false presumption). Pursuits of these things when detached from the 'standard' become merely facts about people's psychology and about their personal preferences. You cannot have an ethical system where A prefers lawful behaviour over unlawful behaviour in the same way that B prefers chicken over beef, for then we are getting into nonsensical territory.
And here we are beginning to see why this issue is such an important one. When speaking about law and order we must be sure that people are approaching it with a standard already acknowledged rather than a subjectivist approach which turns morality into acts of preference and desire. I call the answer to the sum 3+5 right or wrong depending on whether I hear '8' or not; and in the same way, I call the act of taking a bottle of aftershave out of a shop and slipping it into a plastic bag 'theft' or 'an economic transaction' depending on whether one has paid for it or not. This does not trivialise the act of purchasing, nor does it trivialise the act of doing sums correctly; but it does mean that what makes one thing valid is based upon the law or system which legitimises it. You can make burglary legal if you wish to have anarchy, but no amount of anarchy can make three and five add up to nine. This is what morality is - it is the 'standard'. 
Having said all this, it now becomes imperative that when we talk about punishment and rehabilitation, we must admit several things. 1) That we are morally obliged to punish offenders and help them with rehabilitation. 2) That the part the state plays when interposing a man's free rights must be justified on the basis of more than preference and feeling - it must be based on an immutable moral justification, itself supported by the greater good. And 3) That nobody stands above us, as an adult to a child, on the matter of being more or less fallen. A tree may be taller than a flower, but a flower can be more beautiful. 
No law must be passed with the belief that morality is not a fixed thing. It is fortunate that almost all of our judicial system is based upon a consensual feeling about the fixed nature of morality. And thankfully we seem to be progressing into an era when rehabilitation is seen as a right and essential corollary of punishment. It is, of course, a difficult practice - it takes time and money and its success is largely dependent on the offender wanting to change for the better. But equally important - it is based upon the knowledge that we all have a sound view about such things as 'better' and 'worse' and that each of these things are only the surface; the substratum is the 'standard' by which we should do all of our measuring. Freedom, in this sense, does not mean being free to do whatever one chooses - for real freedom means being free to do as one ought.
So many ideas about rehabilitation are contaminated by thoughts of 'passing the buck' - they cannot seem to have a fixed idea whether it is the responsibility of the state, the parents or the individuals offending. In variable proportions it is the responsibility of all three, but furthermore, it is a collective responsibility in which we can all play a part. Whatever each of us can do to help a friend or neighbour get back on track and feel a bit more self-worth will be a value to the society in which we live as well as a huge benefit to the individual. When Christ said we can move a mountain He did not necessarily mean we could move it all at once, rather that we would be able to move it a bit at a time. If the notion 'Do to others as you would have them do to you' has been lost, there is much we can do to help restore it - after all, do we not, as Christians, claim to understand it better than most?

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