We have only ourselves to blame

I spent this weekend on a yoga retreat. It wasn’t terribly successful as on Sunday morning I fell down the stairs and sprained my ankle, rendering any further participation in sun salutations or downward facing dogs nigh on impossible. As you might imagine, the place was full of healing hands and there was plenty of positive energy all directed at my ankle.

Nonetheless, it still hurts and walking has become something of a challenge in its own right.  Naturally, I put this all down to rotten luck, particularly as my other ankle was still hurting from a fall (from the giddy heights of 4-inch heels) a few weeks ago.  Until one of the yogis pointed out that it was probably because of that fall that I had the second one.

This seems remarkably unfair, but is probably right.  I was all out of balance from the first injury and that is why I fell spectacularly down a flight of stairs.  It is a principle that applies to much of the rest of life making it very difficult to ascribe any event purely to chance or lay the blame for it entirely on someone else.

If you take this to its logical conclusion, it means we all have to take responsibility for everything that happens in our lives, whether directly or indirectly.  Applying this idea to crime and punishment is not just problematic, it’s about as controversial as you can get.  But as I’m never one to avoid a challenge, here goes.

Perhaps this was most eloquently expressed in the much overused quote by Martin Niemöller, the Lutheran pastor imprisoned by the Nazis for his opposition to their state control of German Protestant churches.  In the quote he expresses his deep regret about not having done more to help the victims of the Nazis:


First they came for the Communists


And I did not speak out because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the SocialistsAnd I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left to speak out for me


Niemöller draws a direct line between his lack of opposition to the Nazis and his subsequent imprisonment.  The lesson must be that we all have to take responsibility for the society in which we live and that includes those who commit crimes, whoever they may be.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that criminals aren’t to blame for the acts they perpetrate.  I am not going advocate letting off murderers because they were smacked as children or rapists because their parents never gave them a hug (although both show pretty appalling parenting skills), but I do believe we have to accept some of the responsibility for allowing those crimes to happen.

We have, I think, rather lost sight of the difference between blame and responsibility.  Our criminal justice system is built entirely around a culture of blame, in which we lock up over 87,000 people at any one time, take away not only their liberty, but a whole host of other rights (to vote for example) and then spit them back out on the streets.  In some prisons, over 70 per cent of those released end up back inside.

Not only are we heaping all the blame on to someone else, we are obviously failing to do anything much to prevent them doing it again.  The tabloid cries for ever tougher punishments, often before anyone has even been convicted of a crime, and thorough dislike for liberal fancies like community sentences and restorative justice, has forced the hand of many a Home Secretary, even though much of the evidence suggests they may be more effective than short stays in prison.

The ‘blame vs responsibility’ question surfaced again this weekend following the case of Andrew Jackson, who had followed and bothered teenaged schoolgirls with obscene comments and sexually assaulted a 21-year-old disabled woman.  Jackson has an IQ of 75, has Asperger syndrome and, at the age of 48, lives with his parents and does not work.

I have no idea of the help, if any, he has received for his mental health problems and learning difficulties, clearly not sufficient to prevent him from offending.  However, the judge’s sympathy seemed to focus more on the evident frustration Jackson must experience from never having had a full sexual relationship.  Because of this he spared Jackson from prison, giving him a two-year supervised community order and ordering him to sign the sex offenders register.

In allowing this aspect of Jackson’s probably quite unfulfilled life to dominate his judgement, the judge passed up the opportunity to shine a light on how society cares for and supports those with such problems.  Instead, he enabled the press, yet again, to criticise so-called ‘lenient’ community sentences and deflect the blame for Jackson’s incapability to participate properly in society onto him and him alone.

The curious aspect of this is that while the likes of Mr Jackson received little sympathy from the tabloid press, there remains a prevailing view, one held by more than half of women, that the victims of sexual assault only have themselves to blame, whether that’s because they were flirting, wearing revealing clothes or dancing provocatively.

I don't share that view, rape is never the victim’s fault.  But as a member of a society in which it is still seen as ‘inevitable’ that men have uncontrollable sexual urges, which sexualises girls from an obscenely young age, and uses sex in order to sell just about everything, maybe victims do share some of the responsibility.

Continuing to insist that crime is always someone else's fault means we have to acknowledge we are unlikely to change attitudes about rape or prevent young offenders from becoming lifelong recidivists.  It is our responsibility to create a society in which troubled children, whether because of bad parenting, physical abuse or mental health problems, don’t grow up to become criminals.  If we don’t, we all have to share some of the blame.

Posted in: Justice system

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