On the day that burglars broke into the house of a friend of mine, removing the fireplaces, the stained-glass windows, and the old oak doors, the news broke that the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Woolf, had instructed his judges to send fewer burglars to prison. Our prisons were overcrowded, he said, and the evidence suggested that the majority of burglars sent to prison for the first time did not profit by the experience. After all, they burgled again.

His Lordship did not draw from this evidence the seemingly obvious conclusion that the burglars in question had not gone to prison for long enough. He probably feared the fury of the liberal press and intellectuals too much for that. Instead, he spoke of burglary as if it were a disease, in need of treatment. Burglars needed rehabilitation, he said, and prison failed to provide it. He favored rehabilitation in “the community” that not only would “tackle the offending behavior” but also save the expense of imprisonment.

How conveniently two birds fall with one stone! His Lordship’s views exemplify the modern superstition that if there exist several desiderata, there must be a simple way of satisfying all of them simultaneously. Thus, if it is desirable to prevent prison overcrowding, reduce expenditure on prisons, and reform burglars, there must be a policy waiting for discovery that will achieve all three goals.

In Lord Woolf’s estimation, this perfect policy is punishment in what he rather optimistically calls “the community” (the cohesion of which, of course, crime has done so much to erode). That fully half of the criminals sentenced to community service do not bother to complete their “punishments,” and that their recidivism rate is also very high, does not seem to trouble His Lordship, unlike the supposed failure of imprisonment. He would rather bask in the praise of the intelligentsia than reduce the incidence of crime in what has become the world’s most burgling—and burgled—nation.

As for the burglars themselves, they will view Lord Woolf with the contempt he deserves. Unlike him, they know perfectly well that they do not need treatment. Unlike him, they know that they are human beings, who make choices for themselves. They do not need to “‘tackle their offending behavior”: they need to stop it. Lord Woolf wants to deprive them of one possible incentive to do so, and for this he merits the execration of every householder in the country—particularly the poor, who are most likely to suffer a housebreaking.


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