Crooks who are in prison are not burgling your house, says Theodore Dalrymple. They themselves understand that perfectly clearly: it is only sentimental mugs who don’t

When Mr Clarke went recently to Leeds Prison, prior to announcing in a speech that prison wasn’t working and that therefore fewer people ought to be locked up, he was reported to have been much affected by the story of a man he met there who had been imprisoned for six weeks for having failed to pay child support. The man told him that the brief sentence had ruined his life, that he had lost his job because of it and that when he came out of prison he would have to go on the dole.

Whether Mr Clarke asked himself some rather obvious questions about the case is unknown. How many times had the man refused to pay the support before he was imprisoned? How typical of the prison population was he? Is refusal to pay the upkeep of one’s children really a minor matter? (John Stuart Mill, in an infrequently cited passage in On Liberty, thought that such a man could rightly be put to forced labour, a proposal that would turn modern England into a vast gulag if implemented.) Of course it is possible that an injustice had been done this man, because injustices are sometimes done: but there was nothing in the report of the encounter to allow anyone, and certainly not Mr Clarke, to draw such a conclusion.

Whatever his private thoughts, the Justice Secretary was quite obviously appealing to the sentimentality of the British intelligentsia and its long-held wish that the punishment imposed by the criminal justice system should be therapeutic rather than merely protective and deterrent. According to this view, if punishment fails to reform the criminal, then it is not only worthless but primitive and cruel. This is so even if prison conditions are good.

Mr Clarke is almost certainly glowing internally on the supposition that criminals will hold him in high regard for his compassion towards them. If he is, he is quite mistaken. They will hold him, quite rightly, in utter contempt, for criminals know very well the effectiveness of punishment: which is why they mete it out to each other with the utmost celerity if one of their number breaks their code.

By accepting the sentimentally therapeutic view of prison, Mr Clarke powerfully encourages the bad faith of so many criminals, who know that, once more, they have society on the run. They are just waiting for the likes of Mr Clarke. Here I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a career burglar in prison.

‘I don’t need prison, doctor,’ he said. ‘I need help. Prison’s no use to me.’

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‘But it is of use to me,’ I said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, while you’re in prison you’re not burgling my house.’

The prisoner laughed with that it’s-a-fair-cop-guv kind of laugh that I came to love, and that demonstrated to me that prisoners are by no means the dullards and dolts that they are often taken (by sentimentalists) to be. Unlike Mr Clarke, he understood my point at once, without further explanation. Had I been Mr Clarke, however, I would no doubt have replied that I knew that when he left prison he would return to burglary, and therefore I was agitating for his immediate release, because prison wasn’t working.

Whether it is desirable that wilful human behaviour such as criminality should be amenable to some technical treatment or other, rather like the removal of a brain tumour by surgery, is an open question; what is hardly in doubt is that such ‘treatment’, short of general anaesthesia, does not exist.

An important feature of sentimentality — one that is disastrous in deciding policy — is the mistaking of a wish for the fact. We would like there to be some better method of dealing with criminals than imprisonment, therefore there is, and must be, such a method.

Another important distinguishing feature of sentimentality is that it often manifests itself in a conspicuous display of feeling greater than that which is actually felt by the person displaying it. The sentimentalist often wants to deceive himself as well others. One might almost say that sentimentality is the tribute that indifference pays to compassion: well-illustrated in the case of Mr Clarke and his short-term prisoner.

It is surely not a very difficult concept that a man who fails to support his own children financially might be causing them, and their mother, avoidable hardship. At the very least it is a possibility that cannot be dismissed until the whole story is known. Therefore, to use such a man to drum up sympathy for short-term prisoners as a whole is a public expression of indifference towards the situation of his children and their mother. And one might add that it is also a symptom of an utter and callous indifference to the suffering of the victims of criminals who repeat their crimes while on bail or community sentences, of whom there are hundreds of thousands, and probably millions, every year.

For example, in Scotland last year a fifth of all crimes, 32,546 of them, that ended in a conviction were committed by people already on bail — to say nothing of those committed by people on probation. Even taking the clear-up rate of crimes in Scotland seriously, as if it were an honestly collected statistic, this means that considerably more than 1 per cent of the Scottish population was victimised in a single year by criminals already on bail. Nearly a fifth of all murders and homicides, and a third of all burglaries and street robberies, were committed by people on bail. Since the chances of being the victim of crime are very unevenly distributed in the population, sentimentality about the ineffectiveness of prison such as that voiced by Mr Clarke therefore boils down to total indifference to the quality of the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country.

Of course, he is not alone (whether this is an extenuation is another matter). Not long ago I was in a public discussion with an eminent personage on the question of imprisonment, and he brought up the effect it had on the prisoner’s wife and children.

He appeared to think that, when English criminals are not in prison, they spend their time playing happy families. He had not noticed that a quarter of British child-ren now live in single parent households and that, in that part of society in which a very large proportion of criminals live and breathe, fatherlessness is the norm and the absence of a father is not exactly unexpected, let alone unprecedented, and is often even welcomed because of the behaviour of the father. Moreover, with current sentencing policies, getting into prison usually takes some determination, as a review of the criminal records of most prisoners will reveal: that is to say, it requires at the very least a certain insouciance on the part of criminals about the welfare of their own offspring.

The disregard of the most obvious but disturbing reality in favour of wishful thinking and the desire to appear, both to oneself and to others, as more compassionate than one really is, in short sentimentality, has been characteristic of British social policy for decades. It has led to the police being more assiduous about victim support than about preventing crime or detecting those who have committed it; it has led to the admission in our courts to the ultimate manifestation of psychotherapeutic kitsch, the victim impact statement, in which the victim of a murder is turned by his close relatives into a martyred hero, ex officio as it were, as if what were wrong with murder were the loss of a charming smile or a wonderful sense of humour, with the unpleasant and brutal implication that the murder of charmless or humourless people is a lesser offence. There has long been a dialectical relationship between sentimentality and brutality.

Worse still, sentimentality has turned the supposed misfortunes of million
s into a job opportunity for other millions, with terrible consequences, cultural, social and economic. That some people are genuinely incapable of helping themselves is, of course, true; that some have more difficult paths through life than others, through no fault of their own, is also true; but to avoid all judgment as to who can and who cannot help himself, because of a sentimental fear that where there is judgment there is the possibility both of error and cruelty, is to confer on an immense number of one’s fellow beings the status of objects. When transformed into policy, this attitude entrusts millions of people with nothing more serious than the most trivial of consumer choices and empties the world of meaning, as well as leading to a pervasive intellectual and emotional dishonesty in public life.

Sentimentality is hardness of heart, or even contempt, masquerading as feeling. It is to sympathy what incontinence is to urination (except, of course, that it is voluntary, and is vastly more destructive). It is mental and emotional laziness, a refusal to discipline the gratifying glow of self-regard by deeper reflection. It has rotted us through and through; it is the reason why it is necessary to remind our rulers that the protection of the population from crime is not an optional extra for the state once it has paid for the sex-change operations of those who want them, etc, but comes very close to the state’s whole raison d’être, and that rulers who fail in this regard are no longer legitimate, but parasites upon the body politic. Sentimentality, alas, has turned us into a nation of Kenneth Clarkes and Harriet Harmans.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated