Backgrounder from The Spirit Level (Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger)

By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Bloomsbury Press, New York, Berlin, London ©2009 

This post is a backgrounder by Frances Deverell

Chapter 10 – Violence: Gaining Respect

P132 tells us that the majority of violence is committed by males, and mainly between the ages of 15-29. After that it declines sharply. It also shows that in England and Wales there are about 30 murders per million people whereas in Chicago there are 900 murders per million. In the USA a child is killed by a gun every 3 hours. Still, most young men are not violent. “It is poor young men from disadvantaged neighbourhoods who are most likely to be both victims and perpetrators of violence.”

P133 James Gilligan of Harvard Medical School, Director of the Center for the Study of Violence, author of Violence and Preventing Violence, “argues that acts of violence are ‘attempts to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation – a feeling that is painful, and can even be intolerable and overwhelming – and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride.’”

P134 “Inequality is Structural Violence.” “increased inequality ups the stakes in the competition for status: status matters even more.”

Regarding sexual success, women focus more on looks and attracting a stable, producing male. This is more important than their own personal success. Males compete for status. P137 “crimes against property and people, aggression and exploitation and short-term sexual conquests could be seen as the male version of the quantity versus quality strategy in human relationships.”

There is a powerful, direct relationship between inequality and violence with the most unequal countries and states experiencing the most homicides.

P137 Some of the features of unequal societies that contribute to this are:

Higher divorce rates, likelihood of living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood with few positive role models and supports, fatherless homes, poor schools,

P138 “Psychiatrist Gilligan says of the violent men he worked with:

They had been subjected to a degree of child abuse that was off the scale of anything I had previously thought of describing with that term. Many had been beaten nearly to death, raped repeatedly or prostituted, or neglected to a life-threatening degree by parents too disabled to care for their child. And of those who had not experienced these extremes of physical abuse or neglect, my colleagues and I found that they had experienced a degree of emotional abuse that had been just as damaging … in which they served as scapegoat for whatever feelings of shame and humiliation their parents had suffered and then attempted to rid themselves of by transferring them onto their child, but subjecting him to systematic and chronic shaming and humiliation, taunting and ridicule.” (Preventing Violence)

Of course it is not always the family. Bullying at school and in the neighbourhood can also be significant.

In Unequal countries, children experience more conflict and bullying and live in neighbourhoods with lower levels of trust.

P140 “So violence is most often a response to disrespect, humiliation and loss of face, and is usually a male response to these triggers. Even within the most violent societies, most people don’t react violently to these triggers, because they have ways of achieving and maintaining their self-respect and sense of status in other ways. They might have more of the trappings of status – a good education, nice houses and cars, good jobs, new clothes. They may have family, friends and colleagues who esteem them, or qualifications they are proud of, or skills that are valued and valuable, or education that gives them status and hope for the future.”

P142 Peaks and Troughs

“Homicide rates in America, after rising for decades, peaked in the early 1990’s, then fell to their lowest level in the early 2000’s. In 2005, they started to rise again.” The teen-age birth rate followed the same pattern particularly among African Americans. Why? Many reasons were considered (changes in policing, access to guns, or drug use, or contraception). This author believes it was changes in levels of inequality.

Data produced by a collaborative team of reasearchers from the UK, China, and USA, “show inequality rising through the 1980’s to a peak in the early 1990’s. The following decade saw an overall decline in inequality, with an upturn again since 2000. So there is a reasonable match between recent trends in homicides, teenage births, and inequality – rising theough the early 1990’s, declining for a decade or so, with a very recent upturn. Although violence and teenage births are complex issues and rates in each can respond to lots of other influences, the downward trends through the 1990’s were consistent with improvements in the relative incomes at the very bottom of the income distribution. …

“From the early 1990’s in America there was a particularly dramatic decline in relative poverty and unemployment for young people at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Although the rich continued to pull further away from the bulk of the population, from the early 1990’s the relative position of the very poorest Americans began to improve. (Cantave, Vanouse, and Harrison, Trends in Poverty) As violence and teenage births are so closely connected to relative deprivation and concentrated in the poorest areas, it is what happens at the very bottom that matters most – hence the trends in violence and teenage births.”

“The falling levels of unemployment during the 1990’s explained 85% of the decline in rates of first births to 18-19 year old African Americans. … Welfare reform and changes in the availability of abortion, in contrast, appeared to have had little impact.”

P143 “In the UK the impact of the economic recession and widening income differences during the 1980’s can also be traced in the homicide rate. … Danny Dorling, health geographer, pointed out …”There is no natural level of murder … For murder rates to rise in particular places … people have to be made to feel more worthless.”

Chapter 11 – Imprisonment and Punishment

P145 “The number of people locked up in prison is influenced by three things: the rate at which crimes are actually committed, the tendency to send convicted criminals to prison for particular crimes, and the lengths of prison sentences. Changes in any of these three can lead to changes in the proportion of the population in prison at any point in time.”

P147 “Criminologists Alfred Blumstein and Allen Beck have examined the growth in the US prison population. (Population Growth in US prisons, 1980-1996) Only 12 percent of the growth in state prisoners between 1980 and 1996 could be put down to increases in criminal offending (dominated in a rise of drug-related crime.) The other 88 percent of increased imprisonment was due to the increasing likelihood that convicted criminals were sent to prison rather than being given non-custodial sentences, and to the increased length of prison sentences. In federal prisons, longer prison sentences are the main reason for the rise in the number of prisoners. ‘Three strikes’ laws, minimum mandatory sentences and ‘truth-in-sentencing’ laws (ie no remission) mean that some convicted criminals are receiving long sentences for minor crimes. In California in 2004, there were 360 people serving life sentences for shoplifting.” (E. Chemerinsky, ‘Life in Prison for Shoplifting: Cruel and Unusual Punishment,’ Human Rights (2004) 31: 11-13.)

“About forty prison sentences for shoplifting are handed out every day in the UK. Crime rates in the UK were falling as inexorably as imprisonment rates were rising.”

“The prison system in the Netherlands as been described by criminologist David Downes, professor emeritus of social administration at the London School of Economics. He describes how two-thirds of the difference between the low rate of imprisonment in the Netherlands and the much higher rate in the UK is due to the different use of custodial sentences and the length of those sentences, rather than differences in rates of crime.”

P148 They found a direct relationship between rates of imprisonment and unequal societies.

P149 People in lower social classes are much more likely to be sent to jail than people higher up the social scale. P150 They give statistics for both USA and UK in relation to ethnicity and going to jail.

P150 “Are these ethnic inequalities a result of ethnic disparities in rates of crimes committed? Research on young Americans suggests not. Twenty-five percent of white youths in America have committed one violent offence by age 17 compared to 36 percent of African Americans, ethnic rates of property crime are the same, and African American youth commit fewer drug crimes. But African-American youth are overwhelmingly more likely to be arrested, to be detained, to be charged, to be charged as if an adult, and to be imprisoned. The same pattern is true for African-American and Hispanic adults, who are treated more harshly than whites at every stage of the judicial proceedings. Facing the same charges, white defendents are far more likely to have the charges against them reduced, or to be offered ‘diversion’ — a deferment or suspension of prosecution if the offender agrees to certain conditions, such as completing a drug rehabilitation program.”

“Prison data show us that more unequal societies are more punitive.

P151 “Discussing the Netherlands, David Downes describes how a group of criminal lawyers, criminologists and psychiatrists came together to influence the prison system. They believed that:”

“the offender must be treated as a thinking and feeling fellow human being, capable of responding to insights offered in the course of a dialogue … with therapeutic agents.”

P151 “This philosophy has, he says, resulted in a prison system that emphasizes treatment and rehabilitation.” And then describes all the features of that system.

In Japan, with a very low rate of imprisonment, “Prisons have been described as ‘havens of tranquility.’ …Offenders who confess to their crimes and express regret and a desire to reform are generally trusted to do so by police, judges, and the public at large. One criminologist writes that: ‘the vast majority of those prosecuted …confess, display repentance, negotiate for their victim’s pardon and submit to the mercy of the authorities. In return they are treated with extraordinary leniency.’”

P152 “The picture is far starker in the prison systems of the USA. The harshness of the US prison systems at federal, state and county levels has led to repeated condemnations by such bodies as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Committee against Torture. Their concerns relate to such practices as the incarceration of children in adult prisons, the treatment of the mentally ill and learning disabled, the prevalence of sexual assaults within prisons, the shackling of women inmates during childbirth, the use of electro-shock devices to control prisoners, the use of prolongued solitary confinement and the brutality and ill-treatment sometimes perpetrated by police and prison guards, particularly against ethnic minorities, migrants and homosexuals.”

“Eminent American criminologist John Irwin has spent time studying high-security prisons, county jails and Solano State Prison in California, a medium-security facility housing around 6,000 prisoners, where prisoners are crowded together, with very limited access to recreation facilities or education, training or substance abuse programs. He describes serious psychological harm done to prisoners, and their difficulties in coping with the world outside when released, across all security levels and types of institutions.

“In some prisons, inmates are denied recreational activities, including television and sport activities. In others, prisoners have to pay for health care, as well as room and board. Some have brought back “prison stripe” uniforms and chain gangs. America’s toughest sherrif, Joe Arpaio, has become famous for his ‘tent city’ county jail in the Arizona Desert, were prisoners live under canvas, despite temperatures that can rise to 130 degrees F and are fed on meals costing less than 20 cents a head.

“America’s development of the ‘supermax’ prison, facilities designed to create a permanent state of social isolation, has been condemned by the United Nations Committee on Torture. Sometimes free-standing, sometimes constructed as ‘prisons within prisons’, these are facilities where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours out of every day. Inmates leave their cells only for solitary exercise or showers. Medical anthropologist Lorna Rhodes, who has worked in a supermax, describes prisoners’ lives as characterized by lack of movement, stimulation and social contact’. Prisoners kept in such conditions often are (or become) mentally ill and are unprepared for eventual release: they have no meaningful work, get no training or education. Estimates vary, but as many as 40,000 people may be imprisoned under these conditions, and new supermax prisons continue to be built.

The States that have more humane approaches are invariably the states such as Vermont, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, that have more equal societies with less disparity between the rich and the poor.

P153 Does Prison Work?

P154 “the consensus among experts worldwide seems to be that it doesn’t work very well. Prison psychiatrist James Gilligan says that the “most effective way to turn a non-violent person into a violent one is to send him to prison.” In fact, imprisonment doesn’t seem to work as well now as it used to in the US: parole violation and repeat offending are an increasing factor in the growth of imprisonment rates. Between 1980 and 1996, prison admissions for parole violations rose from 18 percent to 35 percent. Long sentences seem to be less of a deterrent than higher conviction rates, and the longer someone is incarcerated, the harder it is for them to adapt to life outside. Gilligan says that:

‘the criminal justice and penal systems to deter crime have been operating under a huge mistake, namely, the belief that punishment will deter, prevent, or inhibit violence, when in fact it is the most powerful stimulant of violence that have yet discovered.’

“Some “the consensus among experts worldwide seems to be that it doesn’t work very well.

efforts to use punishment to deter crime are not just ineffective, they actually increase crime. In the UK, the introduction of Anti-Social-Behaviour Orders (ASBO’s) for delinquent youths has been controversial, partly because they can criminalize behavior that is otherwise lawful, but also because the acquisition of an ASBO has come to be seen as a rite of passage and badge of honour among some young people.”

“There appears to be a trend towards higher rates of re-offending in more punitive systems.” (USA and UK – reoffending rates 60-65%. Japan and Sweden 25-40%.)

p155 “Imprisonment rates are not determined by crime rates so much as by differences in official attitudes towards punishment versus rehabilitation and reform.”

“In societies with greater inequality, where the social distances between people are greater, where attitudes of ‘us and them’ are more entrenched and where lack of trust and fear of crime are rife, public and policy makers alike are more willing to imprison people and adopt punitive attitudes towards the ‘criminal elements’ of society. More unequal societies are harsher, tougher places. And as prison is not particularly effective for either deterrence or rehabilitation, then a society must only be willing to maintain a high rate (and high cost) of imprisonment for reasons unrelated to effectiveness.

“Societies that imprison more people also spend less of their wealth on welfare for their citizens. This is true of the US states and also of OECD countries. Criminologists David Downes and Kirstine Hansen report that this phenomenon of ‘penal expansion’ and ‘welfare contraction’ has become more pronounced over the past couple of decades. In his book Crime and Punishment in America, published in 1998, sociologist Elliott Currie points out that, since 1984, the state of California built only one new college but twenty-one new prisons. In more unequal societies, money is diverted away from positive spending on welfare, education, etc. into the criminal and judicial systems. Among our group of rich countries, there is a significant correlation between income inequality and the number of police and internal security officers per 100,000 people. Sweden employs 181 police per 100,000. While Portugal has 450.

Pp155-156 “Our impression is that, in more equal countries and societies, legal and judicial systems, prosecution procedures and sentencing, as well as penal systems, are developed in consultation with experts – criminologists, lawyers, prison psychiatrists and psychologists, etc., and so reflect both theoretical and evidence-based considerations of what works to deter crime and rehabilitate offenders. In contrast, more unequal countries and states seem to have developed legal frameworks and penal systems in response to media and political pressure, a desire to get tough on crime and be seen to be doing so, rather than on considered reflection on what works and what doesn’t. John Silverman, writing for the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, says that prisons are effective only ‘as a means of answering a sustained media battering with an apparent show of force.’ In conclusion, Downes and Hanson deserve to be quoted in full.”

“A growing fear of crime and loss of confidence in the criminal justice system among the population, … made the general public more favourable towards harsh criminal justice policies. Thus, in certain countries, in particular the United States and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom (and a growing trend in Canada) – public demand for tougher and longer sentences has been met by public policy and election campaigns which have been fought and won on the grounds of the punitiveness of penal policy. In other countries, such as Sweden and Finland, where the government provides greater ‘insulation against emotions generated by moral panic and long-term cycles of tolerance and intolerance’ (Tonry, 1999) citizens have been less likely to call for, and to support, harsher penal policies and the government has resisted the urge to implement such plans.”

“John Irwin writes that while imprisonment is generally believed to have four ‘official’ purposes – retribution for crimes committed, deterrence, incapacitation of dangerous criminals and the rehabilitation of criminals, in fact three other purposes have shaped America’s rates and conditions of imprisonment. These ‘unofficial’ purposes are class control – the need to protect honest middle class citizens from the dangerous criminal underclass; scapegoating – diverting attention away from more serious social problems (and here he singles out growing inequalities in wealth and income and opportunity); and using the threat of the dangerous class for political gain.”

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