Op-Ed: The Soft‑on‑Crime Roots of British Disorder
by Joyce Lee Malcolm
In a civilized society people would be allowed to defend themselves with guns, not baseball bats.
As wild gangs of youths burned homes, shops and cars and severely beat anyone who tried to stop them last week, English people tried to defend themselves. Their desperation triggered a 5,000% increase in purchases of baseball bats from Amazon.
This is a sad symbol of the failure of the British approach to crime -- with its sympathy for offenders, intolerance of self‑defense, and unwillingness to pay for adequate crime control. A people once proud of their peaceful country and unarmed policemen had to resort to clubs to protect life and limb.
Great Britain's leniency began in the 1950s, with a policy that only under extraordinary circumstances would anyone under 17 be sent to prison. This was meant to rehabilitate young offenders. But the alternative to incarceration has been simply to warn them to behave, maybe require community service, and return them to the streets. There has been justifiable concern about causes of crime such as poverty and unemployment, but little admission that some individuals prefer theft to work and that deterrence must be taken seriously.
Victims of aggression who defend themselves or attempt to protect their property have been shown no such leniency. Burglars who injured themselves breaking into houses have successfully sued homeowners for damages. In February, police in Surrey told gardeners not to put wire mesh on the windows of their garden sheds as burglars might hurt themselves when they break in.
If a homeowner protecting himself and his family injures an intruder beyond what the law considers "reasonable," he will be prosecuted for assault. Tony Martin, an English farmer, was sentenced to life in prison for killing one burglar and wounding another with a shotgun during the seventh break‑in at his rural home in 1999. While his sentence was later reduced to five years, he was refused parole in 2003 because he was judged a danger to burglars.
In 2008, a robber armed with a knife attacked shopkeeper Tony Singh in West Lancashire. During the struggle the intruder was fatally stabbed with his own knife. Although the robber had a long record of violent assault, prosecutors were preparing to charge Mr. Singh with murder until public outrage stopped them.
Meanwhile, the cost of criminal justice has convinced British governments to shorten the sentences of adult criminals, even those guilty of violent crimes, and to release them when they have served half of their sentence. Police have been instructed by the British Home Office to let burglars and first‑time offenders who confess to any of some 60 crimes -- ranging from assault and arson to sex with an underage girl -- off with a caution. That means no jail time, no fine, no community service, no court appearance.
In 2009, 70% of apprehended burglars avoided prison, according to British Ministry of Justice figures. The same year, 20,000 young offenders were electronically tagged and sent home, a 40% increase in the number of people tagged over three years.
All sorts of weapons useful for self‑defense have been severely restricted or banned. A 1953 law, the "Prevention of Crime Act," made any item someone carried for possible protection an "offensive weapon" and therefore illegal. Today there is also a list of devices the mere possession of which carries a 10‑year sentence. Along with rocket launchers and machine guns, the list includes chemical sprays and any knife with a blade more than three inches long.
Handguns? Parliament banned their possession in 1997. As an example of the preposterous lengths to which zealous British authorities would enforce this law, consider the fate of Paul Clark, a former soldier. He was arrested in 2009 by Surrey police when he brought them a shotgun he found in his garden. For doing this personally -- instead of asking the police to retrieve it -- he received a five‑year prison sentence. It took a public outcry to reduce the normal five‑year sentence to 12 months, and then suspend it.
The ban on handguns did not stop actual crimes committed with handguns. Those crimes rose nearly 40%, according to a 2001 study by King's College London's Center for Defence Studies, and doubled by a decade later, according to government statistics reported in the London Telegraph in October 2009.
Knives? It's illegal for anyone under age 18 to buy one, and using a knife for self‑defense is unlawful. In 1991, American tourist Dina Letarte of Tempe, Ariz., used a penknife to protect herself from a violent attack by three men in a London subway. She was convicted of carrying an offensive weapon, fined, and given a two‑year suspended sentence.
The result of policies that punish the innocent but fail to deter crime has been stark, even before the latest urban violence.
Click here to read the entire op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.