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John Hemming MP: Hospital Orders & Public Safety

Editors Note: The forth article in our "Personal Views" series is written by John Hemming MP, the Member of Parliament for Birmingham Yardley. He has kindly agreed to write an article for us that introduces an issue he believes currently is under-reported - Hospital Orders. You can be rest assured it will be something that we follow up. He also has a blog, which can be founds here.

If you would like to add your personal view, you know where to find us.

Read on for John's article.

I am always surprised when people say "Prison does not work". There are clearly people who are a danger to society. Prison in locking them out of general circulation protects society. It is clear, therefore, that in that aspect of protecting society that "Prison Works".

One of the real problems is that when looking at law and order people do not go back to first principles. What we need to do is ensure that people (including politicians and civil servants) operate by the "Rule of Law" rather than a jungle culture in which the strong prevail. It is, therefore, necessary to identify mechanisms whereby this is acheived.

It is firstly important to recognise that human behaviour is generally habitual. People develop habits of behaviour. Some of those habits involve respecting others, doing voluntary work and working according to a system of rules to resolve disputes. Other habits involve the use of guns, the attempt to push at the limits of the system and addiction to narcotics.

Changing an individual's pattern of behaviour is much harder than getting people to start with the right form of behaviour. Human beings generally are self-interested and it needs to be demonstrated to them that they need to respect other people and the rule of law such that they develop the habit of being law abiding.

We have developed problems within the UK in that discipline has been undermined in schools in various ways - not least the forcing of schools to accept violent pupils that happened in my own constituency a few years ago. This is important because it is in schools and at home with their parents that people develop their initial habits. There are two generalised systems for running human societies that of the "Rule of Law" and that of the "Rule of Person". In the latter example a strong leader is in charge and people are trained through sanctions to not do things to upset the leader. When considered in the abstract societies tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum between those two positions.

A society which is strongly orientated towards the rule of person will tend to develop a strong culture of not upsetting people and respect. However, it will end up relatively corrupt and invidividual rights will be discounted. I am an emphatically strong supporter of the rule of law. However, I take the view that as children are developing into adults the rule of person both in the home and also at school is a better way of developing habits of respecting others. This involves allowing a certain amount of leeway for parents and schools to enforce discipline. This means for example allowing schools to expel violent pupils without a complex bureaucracy.

When it comes to sanctions against adults and younger people there is a need for there to be some fear of the sanctions. The current system hands out cautions for offences against the person such as robbery which acts to develop a habit of criminal behaviour. There are too many factors driving leniency into the system which mean that by the time someone comes up against a firm sanction they have already developed a habit of criminal behaviour.

This culture of leniency drives many of the people who argue that prison does not work. Yes we need to look at the process whereby released ex-convicts are integrated back into society, but this should not be done by rewarding them with things that otherwise they would not get had they been law abiding. At the moment an ex-prisoner has a higher priority for housing than an ex-serviceman. This gives a mixed message to society.

Where we need to see a substantial shift is that we need to consider the criminal jusitice system as a whole. There is, for example, a massive problem with Hospital Orders. Hospital Orders are given to people who have committted a criminal offence who are mentally ill. However, the process whereby they are released does not sufficiently take into account the threat they are to society and people are killed by those who have been through this process.

I have asked the home office to develop a flow chart of the criminal justice and mental health systems. It is only by looking at each step of these processes and doing proper objective unprejudiced research that it is possible to identify how the system really should work.

In the mean time noone say that that "prison doesn't work". Clearly it does. Much of the rest of the system encourages criminal behaviour and the system as a whole needs a substantial and detailed review.


I believe that your point that "People develop habits of behaviour." has significant implications for the future of prison policy.

One of the reasons that custodial sentences come under attack is the claim that it is impractical, cruel, and too expensive to continue locking more and more people up every year. But bad habits of behaviour such as criminality can be reduced over time once criminals realise that if they persistently re-offend they will definitely go to prison for a very long time, even life if that's what it takes for the worst recidivists.

It might take some time for the message to get through, but I think that once habitual re-offending is stopped prison populations might actually fall. The difficulty might be accepting a spike in prison numbers in the medium term as the message sinks in, and new habits are formed. The short term rage from prison abolishionists might be difficult to resist.

The real issue is that it takes more pressure to get someone to change their habit than to maintain a habit.

This is something that applies in many areas of behaviour.

Very thought-provoking post, John. I hope you continue - you clearly have a lot to contribute. Does your stance cause you any problems within your party?

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