Saturday, 3 January 2015

Drink Driving and Lesser Crimes

There is a curious logic applied to drink driving as compared with other crimes. It's a logic that has been spectacularly successful at making the practice both legally very risky and socially unacceptable over recent decades,  and it's the generally effective "broken windows" strategy of clamping down hard on even minor offenders to make it not worth the risk. With a 12 month ban, hefty fines and an extended driving test the standard sanction for even a mild case, along with the very real prospect of losing your job, years of higher insurance premiums and a considerable social stigma. If there is an accident, regardless of fault, or a previous conviction for drink driving then you will be lucky to escape prison. Only a fool would even contemplate driving home after more than a small drink with a meal, and many like myself wouldn't even take the small drink as the pleasure is not worth the risk.

Interestingly this has been achieved without going to the lengths some other countries have gone to in things like road blocks randomly testing every passing car, and with a relatively high limit compared with other countries.

So far so good then - effective policing and strong legislation have made a dangerous practice much less common without inconveniencing law abiding members of the public.

The curious thing is that this logic so rigorously and effectively applied to driving a car while inebriated is almost universally dismissed as outdated, ineffective and even counterproductive when applied to almost every other act of criminal behaviour. It is a well hackneyed piece of liberal dogma that prisons make people more likely to offend, and that there is no correlation between stiffer sentences and a reduction in crime, yet in the case of drink driving this has been completely at odds with our experience.

If a 21 year old man (the demographic most likely to offend) were to be caught driving home from the pub with a blood alcohol level that was "double the limit" - which can be achieved with a relatively modest amount of alcohol - then most people would say he deserved his punishment,  the 12 or more months of bus travel, the hefty fine, even the loss of his livelihood, because he did an irresponsible thing which he knew to have severe negative consequences and was caught. And count himself lucky he didn't kill someone.

However if you were to suggest a similar sanction against a 21 year old man who was caught shoplifting,  brawling in a nightclub or in possession of illegal drugs you would be derided as a cruel and reactionary conservative. A hang 'em and flog 'em right winger too blinkered to see that this course of action would increase the chances of recidivism by labelling him a criminal and hampering his chances of productive employment. Instead these offenders are given cautions,  ASBOs and meaningless slaps on the wrist time after time until their offending leads to more serious harm.

Why should this be? Why would something that has been effective for one criminal act not even be attempted with others? Why has a raft of snooping powers and intrusive legislation been brought in to prevent and punish related activities and so undermine the liberties of the whole population, when no serious attempt has been made to actually punish "petty" crime so that it doesn't become commonplace and acceptable in the way that driving home from the pub used to be but isn't now?

Following the money usually casts an interesting light on such mysteries, and one feature of drink drivers, like speeding motorists, is that they typically have something to lose, and the ability to pay the fines. Something that many people convicted of other crimes often do not. With over 50,000 people convicted in the UK annually and fines regularly over £1000 there certainly is money to be had. True it's a drop in the vast wasteful ocean of our government but enough for some mini empires to be built.

Of course the fact that most potential drink drivers have more to lose points us to question whether people who commit other crimes won't respond rationally to the disincentive of losing their liberty, or they don't believe they face this sanction.

The former is an impossible proposition for a justice system. The only possible answer to someone with that outlook is to remove from them the opportunity to cause harm.

If, as seems much more probable,  they simply don't believe our justice system will ever hand down a meaningful sanction for their behaviour then the answer to seriously reducing crime is staring us in the face: robust and meaningful penalties consistently applied to make an example of the hardcore who will offend regardless and make sure that those who do take a rational approach to such decisions are never tempted to think it's worth the risk.