Enough Law and Order


Politicians, particularly conservative politicians, are constantly talking up the need for more police and more prison places, and generally being tougher on crime. They are being dishonest and they know it. These campaigns are based on cultivating fear, and have nothing to do with the real situation.

The Hon. Christine Wheeler QC is a former judge of the Supreme Court of Western Australia who is trying to promote constructive public debate about crime. In a recent article, she lists these facts:

former Justice Christine Wheeler

The facts
• Most people think the crime rate is higher than it is, especially for violent offences, and overestimate the likelihood of becoming victims themselves;
• Crime is believed to be increasing, when it is on the whole decreasing;
• Rates of imprisonment in WA are very high, by world and Australian standards, and going up;
• Imprisonment costs the community a lot of money;
• Imprisonment generally does not prevent crime, and may tend to increase it;
• There are effective ways to prevent crime, and to treat many criminals, and people generally would like to see more expenditure in these directions; and
• When ordinary people, including victims of crime, are given all the facts of an offence (as opposed to a brief media report) they generally think the sentence imposed by the court is either about right, or a bit harsh. That is, current sentencing is far from “soft”.

Uniview, The University of Western Australia, Summer 2011-12, page 38

The impression that the media gives is that 50% of crimes involve violence: only about 7% do. This means that people overestimate their risk of being victims of crime. Women and the elderly are the least likely to be victims of crime, but their worry about their vulnerability is affecting their quality of life.

Imprisoning people actually increases the crime rate. When someone goes to prison, they meet other prisoners, they lose their relationships and their jobs. People who have nothing to lose are not deterred by the threat of imprisonment, so they re-offend, causing greater crowding in the prisons. The management of over-crowded prisons creates difficulties that are totally unnecessary. It seems that the more over-crowded the prison, the higher the per prisoner cost to the taxpayer. Currently according to Ms Justice Wheeler the annual cost for each prisoner is about $100,000. “In broad terms,” she writes, “for every extra year an offender is imprisoned, there is one less teacher or nurse or police officer the state is able to employ.”

Mental ill-health and drug and alcohol consumption are major issues in violent crime. There are too few treatment options for offenders coming before the courts. Investment in mental health would reduce crime, as would any measures aimed at reducing alcohol consumption.

Media reporting on crime is designed to heighten our awareness of crime, because the nature of the media is to focus on the drama. In addition, police rounds journalists report stories of three or four crimes in succession and this adds to the false impression of the quantity of crime.

Of course sympathy for victims of crime and outrage at violence are appropriate responses to individual crimes; but the next time you hear a politician claim that Western Australia has a law and order problem, call them and tell them they are lying.

Untimely, but gentlemanly, Dying


P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley

London: Faber & Faber, 2011. Pback 310 pages. ISBN 9-780-57128358-3. RRP $29.99


I’ve had to have been persuaded to read Jane Austen; despite the enthusiasm of some friends for the 19th Century novelist, I have been put off by her high style and the brittle world she builds of English class distinctions at the end of the 18th Century.

I was anticipating the next police procedural of P.D. James, a modern stylist and great crime writer, and I admit to some disappointment when I read the advance publicity for Death Comes to Pemberley: an amalgam of a Jane Austen novel and a crime thriller.

Elizabeth Bennet has married Darcy and settled at Pemberley. They have two sons in the nursery and their marriage is a happy one. Each year, Pemberley Hall is the scene for a grand ball, named in honour of Darcy’s late mother, Lady Anne. Pemberley is thrown into disarray on the night before Lady Anne’s ball by the bloody death of an army officer in the estate woods. The scene needs much untangling as Wickham, a man never to be received at Pemberley is found kneeling over the body, drunk, and exclaiming that it is his fault that his friend is dead. Wickham is married to Elizabeth’s sister Lydia, and causes ongoing distress to the Darcys by living irresponsibly beyond his means. Darcy as a paterfamilias has in the past been obliged to pick up the tab.

In the subsequent investigation and trial, family loyalties are stretched to breaking point, and Pemberley looks set to be shamed for generations to come, until the final resolution, which – in Jane Austen fashion – is a set of happy outcomes for all.

James’s writing is so good that I was drawn into this complex web of family relationships and intrigue and enjoyed this novel almost as much as her other crime novels. (I don’t think she can better Death in Holy Orders – but then, I’m a priest!)

I was amused that Darcy consulted his wrist-watch and Elizabeth her bedside alarm clock: they were needed to establish times of alibis. The year in which Death Comes to Pemberley is set is 1803, well before the mass production of wrist-watches and the miniaturisation of alarm clocks. Darcy, as a gentleman, would much more likely have a pocket watch, if any time-piece on his person, and Elizabeth would more likely be used to consulting a maid who might know the time from a large hall clock. I can’t help feeling there’s a joke element here. P.D. James is too careful to have simply made a mistake.

The incongruity of the time-pieces emphasise how complete the world is that James has created. I believed her portrayal of reactions to death among the British upper-class of the time. I suspect Baroness James has some nostalgia for a time when gentlemen lived on their estates and as magistrates kept good order in the realm.

The downside to this nostalgia is that Death Comes to Pemberley lacks some of the social edge of James’s earlier novels. This has been a divertissement, and a thoroughly enjoyable one, but I do hope she returns to more modern settings if we are blessed with future novels.

Ted Witham