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Why burglars are not punished

Theodore Dalrymple, The Social Affairs Unit, 09-09-2011

Again, let us consider the startling, but to me not surprising, figure that I saw recently in the Guardian for the percentage of convicted robbers and burglars sent to prison, namely 12. Since the police solve about 8 per cent of these crimes (and even that is probably an exaggeration) one can deduce that about one in 100 robberies or burglaries ends in a prison sentence.

Burglaries and robberies tend not to be what murderers sometimes designate their crimes, namely "a one-off"; rather, they are repeated crimes and those who indulge in them do so many times, something that has been confirmed to me on innumerable occasions by the many robbers and burglars whom I have met. The odds are clearly in their favour, and it is obvious that to leave a robber or burglar at liberty, with barely a slap on the wrist as a punishment, is to encourage more robberies and burglaries.

Why is our government so reluctant to admit the obvious? Why are the most absurd mental pirouettes performed by Home Secretaries, Secretaries of Justice and Chief Justices, in order to come to any conclusion but the most obvious one? They are not, after all, lacking in intelligence; the explanation must lie elsewhere.

There are two reasons, I think. The first is sentimentality: that leniency towards criminals shows great-heartedness, whereas its opposite - in my view, realism - demonstrates hardness of heart. That the great-heartedness is at the expense of other people does not matter to them. The punished criminal before them is a tangible, visible being; the people saved from victimisation by his punishment are spectres, because they are neither tangible nor visible.

But there is another reason. The expansion of tertiary education has increased the number of lawyers dramatically. Lawyers need criminals as addicts need dealers. The last thing the criminal justice system wants to do, then, is to prevent crime by repressing it. And there is a clear, if unconscious, understanding that a hundred thousand lawyers with no income will give you more trouble than five million burgled and robbed people of the lower classes - the principle victims of burglars and robbers.

In the words of Flanders and Swann, it all makes work for the working man to do.

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