Forms and the Tin Pot Stasi

A mere bureaucracy that the UK criminal justice system has become as good as a name will do almost anything instead of solving the problem it is facing. It will invent any number of complex procedures that are supposedly intended to solve a problem, but are really only intended to occupy themselves. Finally, a resolved problem poses a potential threat to a bureaucracy as it could be used to justify a reduction in its size when the next round of budget cuts is proposed.

A good UK example of the tendency for a bureaucracy to devise additional procedures instead of finding a real solution to a problem is what is known as gang injection, a civilian order issued by youths who commit violent crimes while part of a gang. Various conditions are imposed on them (e.g., entering certain areas or connecting with certain people), the violation of which can theoretically lead to their imprisonment.

A young man named Callander O’Brien was recently subjected to one of these orders, the terms of which included no balaclava helmet, no bicycle riding in public, no knife wearing, and no running away from a policeman who was told to stop and enter London borough of Islington failed to contact or connect with anyone on a list of 59 people. He was only allowed to use a registered cell phone and show his social media posts, none of which could cause violence, to the police.

Although Callander O’Brien was only 19 years old, he already had an extensive criminal record for four years. He had previously also been subjected to one of these gang orders, the prohibitions of which – many similar to those in the following – he had disregarded. For this he was sentenced to eight weeks in a youth prison, a sentence that was suspended for six months.

The lavish absurdity of this hardly needs to be emphasized. Without the injunction, wouldn’t it be allowed to carry a knife, run away from the police and incite violence on social media? Will it henceforth be a defense against an indictment of incitement to violence that the defendant did not have an injunction against it and therefore considered it permissible?

The difficulties in enforcing such an order are obvious. It is hard to expect a police officer to be able to spot Callander O’Brien immediately, even if his image is widely publicized. The implication would be that either O’Brien would be able to break the injunction against cycling in public with impunity, or that the police would have to stop a hundred teenagers on bikes he could be, leading to unjustified complaints Harassment of many would result in innocent young people from the police. This injustice would in turn arouse resentment against the latter and help justify or explain illegal behavior.

What explains this ridiculous charade? Part of the problem lies in the need for the bureaucracy to do something without actually doing something.

Worst of both worlds is the most likely outcome: there will be some youth harassment without putting O’Brien off.

It’s unlikely that O’Brien was well or well educated, but it is equally unlikely that he couldn’t find a way to get and use an unauthorized cell phone. In fact, we know he can do this because he has already done it. Any serious attempt to verify that he has not communicated with one or more of the 59 individuals named in the injunction would require surveillance of all, a task that is both impossible and oppressively intrusive. Only the bureaucratic mind could put together a tedious task with this improbable combination of characteristics. If you take it seriously, the police become a kind of tin pot Stasi.

How should the police enforce the ban on wearing a balaclava helmet? And is the kind of job the police should be doing? By comparison, an injunction against wearing such a helmet in public would make almost sense, but to ensure O’Brien did not own one (presumably for use in the future after the injunction expired) an indefinite injunction would be required right, along the Gestapo line to enter and search his house. Even in these increasingly authoritarian times, such powers are unlikely to ever be exercised, and so Callander O’Brien knows full well that the injunction against him is a dead letter in more ways than one – and he would even know if he did had not already experienced the missing consequences for breaking a similar, earlier injunction. In fact, while likely ill-educated, he is more intelligent than all of the UK legislature, judiciary and police combined and can easily outsmart them. Even so, a female police officer recently told the press, either through naivety or typical apparatchik evil belief, that “gang orders are a powerful tool to combat our efforts to combat gang crime and violence in our communities.”

What explains this ridiculous charade that is both ineffective and totalitarian? Part of the problem lies in the need for the bureaucracy to do something without actually doing something. But there’s something deeper: a decades-long concerted urge to find alternatives to prison at all costs – including the cost of high levels of violent crime, which has increased nearly a hundred times since 1950.

It is of course true that no one wants a society that is peaceful and safe just for fear of real punishment, and the fact is that most people do not commit crimes for other reasons. We don’t rob, steal, or attack even if we could get away with it. But what is true of most people is not true of everyone, and susceptibility to impulses and temptations varies. It is the vulnerable who must be deterred and, if necessary, incapacitated. The way the criminal justice system responded to Callander O’Brien doesn’t stop him from committing further crimes, nor does it stop someone like him from following his example.

The police will, of course, call it a success, but with such successes a pathetic failure is itself a glorious triumph. The so-called gang injunction is a perfect bureaucratic tool: it does work and avoids it at the same time. And it helps make our society a little more totalitarian.

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