The war against the disadvantaged

Issue 

BY SEAN HEALY

Whether the setting is a remote Aboriginal community, a New York ghetto or a housing estate for Algerian migrants on the outskirts of Paris, the governments of all the major industrialised countries are turning to outright repression to counter rising social tensions.

The funds that in the past may have gone to public schools, hospitals or social welfare services are being pumped into tax cuts for corporations — and into building prisons.

The most obvious sign of this turn to repression is the enormous boom in prison populations in virtually every advanced capitalist country.

The United States is the "market leader", holding 25% of the world's prisoners, even though it accounts for only 5% of the world's population. On February 15, the number of prisoners in the US passed 2 million; it entered the 1990s with 1,145,300 prisoners, a 75% increase in 10 years.

Australia's prison population doubled between 1982 and 1998, from 9826 prisoners to 19,906, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology. In some states, the rate of growth is even greater; at current trends, within two years Queensland's prison population will have trebled within a decade.

The same surge in imprisonment rates has also occurred in western Europe. According to the Prison Affairs Consortium, the total number of prisoners in England and Wales increased by 54% between 1992 and 1997; the number of women prisoners doubled in the same period.

A study by the Prison Reform Trust, comparing prison numbers across Europe between 1987 and 1995, showed an increase in every western European country that far exceeded the population increase. Prison populations grew only 5-7% in France, Denmark and Ireland; but in Norway it was 36%, in Italy 41%, in Spain 70% and in the Netherlands 106%.

This surge is not the result of increased numbers of offences but rather of government policy to toughen sentences: sending people to prison who might previously have received a non-custodial sentence, sentencing offenders to longer terms, and reducing the chances for parole or early release.

Police powers

The prison boom is not the only example of increased reliance on repression. Police have gained souped-up powers of stop, search and arrest, massively increased firepower, greater funding and technological resources and virtual impunity for crimes committed by them.

Police agencies in nearly all Western countries have become increasingly militarised, with greater prominence for elite units, such as special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams or tactical response groups, and heavier reliance on military-style saturation policing of "crime hot spots".

Official justifications for these trends are the supposed need to combat rising crime. But the evidence of rising crime rates is extraordinarily weak.

Police figures, released with much fanfare, showing a dramatic increase in both violent and property crimes for most Western countries over the past two decades are fatally flawed, because they are based on the number of crimes reported to police.

Crime victimisation surveys, considered by criminologists to be a more accurate reflection of crime rates because they take account of crimes not reported to police, show no major increase in violent crime. In fact, between the last two major crime victimisation surveys in Australia, conducted in 1983 and 1993, the rate of assaults dropped substantially.

The rate of incidence of the only crime that has a near-total reporting rate, homicide, has either remained stable or decreased in nearly every Western country in the last 20 years. In 1972, there were 2.2 homicides for every 100,000 people in Australia, while in 1995, there were 2.0. In the US, the figures were 9.0 in 1972 and 8.2 in 1995.

In Australia, the rise in police figures on serious assault correlates closely to the rise in expenditure on police. The Australian Institute of Criminology's David Indermaur argues that increasing police-recorded rates of violent crime are most likely a result of improved police "productivity".

The categories of crime which have increased are drug crimes (a deliberate result of "get tough" enforcement policies) and property crimes, many of which are committed to feed drug addictions. Seventy-five per cent of NSW's prison population are there for drug-related offences; many should not be there at all.

Entrenched bias

Some of the real motivations for Western governments'

toughening on "crime" are obvious.

Politicians, whether Northern Territory chief minister Denis Burke, NSW premier Bob Carr or US Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, have found that playing to, and encouraging, an irrational fear of violent crime is a big vote-winner, especially if it taps into other prejudices, such as racism.

Mainstream media outlets have also found that lurid crime stories sell newspapers and get television ratings. Police departments and prison industries are as voracious in their empire-building efforts as any big corporation.

But there is a lot more to it than that.

The criminal justice system has an entrenched race and class bias. Its primary victims everywhere are the most disadvantaged and marginalised — communities of colour, the homeless, the unemployed, the poorly educated, the mentally ill.

In the United States, the race bias in law and order policies is evident not only in the prison numbers (on any given day, one in 10 black adults is in prison, on parole or on probation — five times the rate of whites) but also in the laws and enforcement policies themselves.

For example, by design of Congress, prison sentences for crack cocaine are 500 times more severe than for powder cocaine. Ninety per cent of all people arrested involving crack are African Americans, 75% of powder cocaine arrests are white.

Under a policy known as "racial profiling", African-Americans and Hispanics are many times more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, even killed, by police officers, on the grounds that police statistics "prove" that people wearing certain types of clothes, in certain neighbourhoods and even of certain ethnic backgrounds are more likely to commit crimes.

In the US state of Maryland, for example, blacks make up 70% of drivers stopped and searched by police whereas just 17.5% of drivers on the road were black. In New Jersey, 77% stopped and searched are black or Hispanic, even though they make up only 13.5% of all drivers.

In New York City, the elite Street Crimes Unit (four SCU officers fired 41 shots at young Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, hitting him 19 times, yet were acquitted of his murder) and its successor, Operation Condor, only target black and Hispanic neighbourhoods.

In Britain, it is no different. A government report, released in 1999, into the Metropolitan Police's failure to adequately pursue the (white) lynch-mob killers of (black) Stephen Lawrence found "institutionalised racism" throughout the force and the courts. The report found police data showing that blacks were six times as likely to be stopped and searched as whites.

Police services in Australia do not release similar data, although anecdotal evidence from Aboriginal Legal Services indicates, if anything, the discrimination is greater.

A 1998 NSW Judicial Commission report did, however, show that not only were young Aborigines vastly over-represented in prisons and detention centres (21 times the rate of whites) but that courts dealt them "significantly harsher penalties than Anglo-Australians".

It is predominantly NSW's Aboriginal and migrant communities that bear the brunt of saturation policing operations: Aborigines in Sydney's Redfern, Vietnamese in Cabramatta and people from Middle Eastern backgrounds in Lakemba are the primary targets.

An ongoing NSW parliamentary inquiry into prison numbers has found that up to 20% of the state's prisoners are mildly to moderately intellectually disabled; this has increased from 12.5% in 1988.

The inquiry also found that 40% of prisoners met the diagnosis for "personality disorder", 60% were not functionally literate or numerate and 44% were long-term unemployed. Most are caught in the prison system because of their circumstances, particularly the dearth of facilities for the mentally ill, disabled and homeless.

Criminalising disadvantage

Repression is increasingly the policy option of choice for states seeking to deal with rising social inequality, itself a product of government social policy and the workings of the capitalist economy.

This extends beyond prison. State attitudes towards welfare and unemployment assistance, immigration, even health insurance have all hardened. No longer considered basic rights, access is weighed down with all manner of tough conditions, and those who receive benefits are stigmatised.

Prison is the capitalism's ultimate substitute for universal schooling and medical care, for properly funded welfare and support services, for amenities for youth, for employment opportunities or life prospects; it is an internment camp for "surplus" populations.

Their very disadvantage becomes criminalised, entrenching it and individualising it: any subsequent disadvantage becomes punishment for misdeeds and therefore something unworthy of sympathy or remedial action.

This criminalisation of disadvantage not only affects those

hit by it; it also affects those who manage, for the moment, to escape the label.

Just as police take control of some suburbs, fear of crime takes hold of others.

White working-class communities, while hit by unemployment, cuts to education and industrial pollution, start to see themselves as privileged — after all, they're far from the scene of battle — and start to see the police as guardians of that privilege. Everything gets twisted around and social solidarity breaks down, one section of the working class set against another.

Governments may call this grand policy the "war on drugs" or the "war on crime", but it's not. It's a war on neighbourhoods and people designated as "criminal", which is not the same thing. It's a civil war fought pre-emptively by the powerful against the powerless, the rich against the poor. And it's a war in which the wrong side still has the initiative.

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