The Ethics Of… Letting Criminals Play Football

Well it takes a lot to talk me down from writing an article on the blatant racism of one of the vilest ‘journalists’ in Australia, but amazingly, here we are. For those lucky enough to have avoided this story, and/or living outside of Melbourne, the news broke two days ago that a convicted violent criminal, currently serving a nine-year sentence for killing a man in a one-punch-from-behind attack (formerly known in Australia as a ‘King hit’, now re-branded as a ‘Coward’s punch’), has been spotted outside of jail, playing in a football game.

Needless to say, questions were raised.

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The story was broken by Channel 7, one of the three main TV news bodies in Melbourne, who revealed that the prisoner (Dylan Closter) was being allowed out to participate in the matches as part of a rehabilitation program. The idea being that prisoners who maintained positive relationships and activity outside of jail would be far better able to reintegrate into society on release, as opposed to simply reoffending on release, or even getting worse through extended exposure to other criminals.

To say that a fair chunk of the community was not very impressed by this would be something of an understatement.

The idea that a criminal convicted of such a brutal and pointless crime could be given the privilege of participating in a public sporting match – as opposed to a league run within the prison system – horrified many. In addition to fairly unrealistic fears that Closter might escape while outside the prison, the largest concern is the message this sort of program sends. ‘Hey violent criminals, sure you violated society’s most central tenants and made everyone else just that little bit more terrified of their safety (not to mention the grievous harm and loss you visited upon your victims), but that’s ok, you can go out and play some footy on the weekend – just promise to be a good boy, ok?’

Not a compelling message to encourage rehabilitation you may think. And even worse, consider the message it sends to those who have not yet offended but who might be harbouring a latent desire to start some violence if they get the opportunity – ‘Oh hey you might go to prison if you violently attack, or even KILL another human being, but it’s not that big a deal really. See, we even let you out to play footy on the weekend!’.

Well intentioned or not, surely this program is just a recipe for the continued degradation of our justice system, resulting in violent crime becoming more and more common over time, as ‘political correctness’ undermines the ability of the police to enforce basic law and order. How long will it be before we all need to arm ourselves, USA-style, just to ensure our own basic safety?

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Anyone else getting this kinda vibe from the debate so far?

It’s a pretty worrying situation, right? Small question: is any of it true?

Dig a little into the arguments presented by Channel 7 and the various commentators that have followed the story, and you have a few solid claims in there:

  1. The football program for criminals will not aid in rehabilitation
  2. The football program and other such rehabilitative programs encourage crime by removing the threat of punishment for crime
  3. Violent crime is increasing over time as such rehabilitative programs are implemented

And of course, the real argument being made here:

  1. The correct way to make society safer/decrease crime is to be tough on criminals

Cool, those are all nice solid statements, they flow logically and, if correct, make a strong case for a fairly radical reform of the criminal justice system, particularly in regards to how we treat prisoners convicted of violent crimes.

But the point still stands: are any of these claims factually true? This is not suggesting that the people upset by this specific situation aren’t upset, nor that their fears aren’t founded on a serious and important fear for their safety. In particular, the mother of the victim is well within her rights to dislike seeing his killer being happy in any capacity.

But we’re not talking about feelings here. We’re not talking about what our preferences, nor even about the various ideologies behind a lot of the politics here. No, we’ve narrowed the debate down to four very specific, very TESTABLE questions – this is now exclusively a question of evidence.

So what does the evidence say about each of our four claims?

  1. The football program for criminals will not aid in rehabilitation


Involvement of prisoners in community programs to aid rehabilitation is pretty much par for the course for several decades now, and has been demonstrated to reduce re-offence rates considerably.

  1. The football program and other such rehabilitative programs encourage crime by removing the threat of punishment for crime

Mostly false.

Studies on the relationship between severity of punishment and rate of crime do show that risk of capture/intensity of policing does indeed decrease the likelihood of crime being committed – but as Closter had already been convicted that is not relevant here.

Those same studies were unable to find any relationship between the threat/severity of punishment and the likelihood of crime being committed. Why? Because they have “mostly struggled to find hard evidence that criminals think about sentence lengths at all”. All of which makes sense, because who the hell goes out to commit a crime expecting to be caught/punished?

  1. The increasing use of such rehabilitative programs is causing a rise in violent crime

This claim hinges on two things: that the overall rate of violent crime has increased, and that this increase correlates with ‘softer’, rehabilitative approaches like the football program.

Answering either of these is tricky, since crime rate varies wildly depending on whether people report those crimes. That said, from the Australian Institute of Criminology:

“Trends in violent crime reported to police since the early 1990s reveal a mixed story. Homicide has decreased by nine percent since 1990 and armed robbery by one-third since 2001, but recorded assaults and sexual assaults have both increased steadily in the past 10 years by over 40 percent and 20 percent respectively.”

So has violent crime become more common? Ignoring the effect of changing reporting rates (though anyone who thinks that the rate of victims reporting sexual crimes in particular has gone down in the last 30 years is kidding themselves), the answer is: barely.

The second part of this claim, blaming ‘soft’, rehabilitative approaches to crime for this increase however, it kind of hard to demonstrate given such approaches have only been in vogue since the current government got in 4 years ago. Prior to that we had a right-wing government who tried the ‘tough’ approach. Tying the subsequent crime rate to either approach is going to be incredibly speculative at best, but overall we can deduce two things:

  • The change in crime rate over the last 30 years could plausibly be due to either the ‘soft’ or ‘tough’ approach (and no your preference is NOT less likely to be responsible); and,
  • Whichever approach is responsible, the net increase in violent crime comes down to two fifths of fuck all.

From the AIC. This graph is per 100,000 citizens, making up a total increase of 0.2%. Not exactly the rampant crime wave we’ve been running scared about.

  1. The correct way to make society safer/decrease crime is to be tough on criminals

Based on the data disproving the last three claims, you’re probably expecting me to wrap thing up here with a simple ‘False’, and my usual encouragement for us all to make decisions based on evidence rather than fear, right?

Fuck that. This is a lot bigger and a lot worse than just a few people over-reacting to a rehabilitation program they didn’t understand (but still managed to get shut down anyway). Nah this is just the latest tip of a particularly poisonous iceberg that I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while now. Specifically, I’m talking about people who want to be ‘tough on crime’. You know the groups I mean; the AM radio shock jocks like Neil Mitchel, the ‘journalists’ like Miranda Divine, Andrew Bolt and now, apparently, Channel 7’s news department. And the millions of concerned citizens who say they are fed up with the government, judges and ‘touchy-feely, bleeding heart, latte-sipping lefties’ making our society more and more dangerous by trying to rehabilitate criminals, rather than just locking them up and punishing them like they deserve.

It’s an age-old and highly compelling approach to crime: Do the Crime, Do the Time. Lay down the rule, make the punishment both severe and clear, and anyone who breaks the law has only themselves to blame if they suffer as a result.

Small problem with that: IT DOESN’T FUCKING WORK.

Let’s be clear on this, it’s not that such a philosophy doesn’t sound logical (it does), nor that it doesn’t make people feel safer (it does), nor is my yelling ‘it doesn’t work’ based on an ideological disagreement with how we ‘should’ treat people. No, I mean a ‘tough on crime’ approach – typically involving heavy jail sentences, reduce parole options, less corrective options like suspended sentences, community-based orders and intensive corrections orders – does not help prevent crime. In fact, it generally makes it worse.

But that’s not even the big point here. The big point is that the leaders of the ‘tough on crime’ movement know it doesn’t work. Why would they push an approach to crime that they know is ineffective? Because it is directly in their interests that crime exists and worsens.

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Bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this.

This is not the supervillain conspiracy it sounds like, but simply a matter of greed. Consider who benefitted from the outrage surrounding this football rehabilitation program – a program that had been running for months with absolutely no negative results.

Channel 7 was rolling in media hits thanks to breaking the story. No doubt their release of it just after a similar ‘coward punch’ situation occurred in an AFL match was just a massive coincidence.

Shock jocks saw a massive spike in their ratings as they used the situation to rail against the current government and use it as ‘proof’ that such rehabilitative programs were threatening society.

And of course, all this has broken only a couple of months before the next state election, meaning that the opposition party (no doubt happy to have a distraction from the time their leader was busted discussing campaign donations with organised crime figures), has done extremely well out of all this, getting to stand up as the ‘tough on crime’ party who will end such rampant injustices such as this – if only the public elects them in November.

When your success as a business/leader/politician is based on being ‘tough on crime’, then serious crimes occurring are a clear and tangible benefit to your interests. What a massive coincidence it then is, that the ‘tough on crime’ tactics tend to worsen said crime rates by slashing preventative and rehabilitative programs.

It’s nearly as if groups who benefit from crime have a vested interest in that crime getting worse.

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Am I arguing that everyone who supports being ‘tough on crime’ wants crime to worsen? Of course not. The vast majority of the people who back such measures are just scared of (what they are told is) a massive increase in violent crime in their community, and are taking the very simple, very intuitively appealing, and very emotionally satisfying solution that the leaders of the movement are offering them.

Unfortunately, that solution does not work. And so, in pursuing their own safety, the masses supporting tough on crime tactics, actually make their lives more dangerous – a fact which the leaders of the movement then use to further reinforce their narrative.

It is something of an irony that the article I was originally going to do this week was going to, in large part, rant about the stupidity of the idea of ‘Australian values’. And yet here I am going to finish the article I wrote instead with an appeal to those same values. Australian like to say that we are brave – hell, we even put ‘courage’ in our national anthem. Well here is our chance to earn that title; there are those in our society that seek to exploit us by appealing to fear. They say that their is a crime wave, that African Gangs run amok, that we’re too scared to eat out in Melbourne due to the danger facing us. Their claims are compelling, but they are not true. They appeal to the fear in us, the coward who runs from shadows in case there is danger in them, who prefers to react rather than seek truth, who hates the strange in case it might pose a danger.

Are Australians worthy of the title ‘brave’? Are we courageous in the mould of the ANZAC Spirit? Well, the next time someone seeks to outrage you, to scare you or to denounce some great social evil, you’ll get your chance to prove it.

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