The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
April 22, 2009

It is not just rapists who are let off too lightly by the courts, argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

The argument is often heard from liberals that rape is not taken seriously enough by the criminal justice system. Theodore Dalrymple agrees - but argues that the same applies for most other crimes as well.

It is curious how, when it comes to rape, the liberal press, and presumably liberals themselves, suddenly appreciate the value of punishment. They do not say of rape that we must understand the causes of rape before we punish it; that we must understand how men develop into rapists before we lock them away, preferably for a long time; that prison does not work. It is as if, when speaking of rape, it suddenly becomes time to put away childish things, and (to change the metaphor slightly) to talk the only kind of language that rapists understand.

They quiver with outrage when they learn that the clear-up rate for rape cases is only 6.5 per cent, though this in fact is very similar to the clear-up rate of all crimes. They are appalled at cases where rapists are left free to commit more of their crimes because of police and Crown Prosecution Service incompetence, which is itself the natural result of the policy of successive governments. But it is important for their self-respect as liberals that their outrage should not be
generalised, that they should not let it spill over into consideration of other categories of crime, where the same bureaucratic levity and frivolity is likewise demonstrated. For, as every decent person knows, there are far too many prisoners in this country already, and prison does not work.

Thus, in an opinion piece about "the national disgrace" that "rape
almost always goes unpunished" in The Guardian for 15 April, the writer Libby Brooks concludes:

This is Britain in the spring of 2009. We are not some UN-designated failed state. We have a criminal justice system that works reasonably effectively for pretty much everyone else.
I will pass over the question of the rate at which we are progressing towards failed-state status (it is important not to exaggerate); but let us just examine the assertion that the criminal justice system works reasonably well for everyone else.

The last time I looked up the figures, the official clear-up rate for domestic burglaries was about one in 12. (Even this is an overestimate, because of unreported burglaries, and because of cases "taken into consideration", a category ripe for statistical manipulation in favour of the police).

The imprisonment rate of convicted burglars was about one in 13. This means that one in 156 domestic burglaries ended in a prison sentence. The average prison sentence is 6 months (which means prisoners actually serve 3 months); let us, for the sake of argument, assume that convicted burglars get, on average, double the average prison sentence, that is to say 12 months, of which they serve 6 months, or 180 days.

Thus, the average cost to a burglar of a domestic burglary is approximately 1 day in prison. The question to be asked, then, is not why there are so many burglaries, but so few. My point at the moment, however, is that the criminal justice system can hardly be said to serve the burgled community very well, though it serves the burgling community very well.

The Guardian for the same date carried a small news item about the widower of Jane Goody, Jack Tweed, who was sentenced to prison for
having assaulted a taxi driver. I reproduce it in full:

Jack Tweed, husband of Jane Goody, who died of cancer last month, was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail yesterday for an assault on a taxi driver after a drinking binge in May last year. Tweed, 21, was found guilty at Epping magistrates' court last month. The court heard how he grabbed taxi driver Stephen Wilkins round the throat and threatened to stab him while he was driving. The 21-year-old also attempted to apply the handbrake while the car was moving, the court heard. It was the second time in six months that Tweed had been found guilty of assault.
It can hardly be said, then, that Tweed was a contrite soul, who had learnt his lesson after the previous assault for which he was convicted (epidemiologically unlikely to have been the first assault he had committed, of course).

It cannot be said, either, that what he did was the kind of thing that anyone might do on the spur of the moment, from understandably overwhelming passion. Nor, I think, is it very likely that the taxi driver considered the six (not twelve) weeks that Tweed would spend in prison sufficient recompense for what he, Tweed, had done, or for what he had made the taxi driver suffer. As for the alcohol, it should not be regarded as in the slightest a mitigating circumstance, rather the reverse.

The driver and other drivers like him could hardly conclude from the sentence passed on Tweed that the state was deeply concerned for their safety or well-being. It is unlikely, also, that The Guardian, which passed no comment on the sentence, was deeply concerned either: for are not taxi-drivers as a whole the kind of people who read the Daily Mail and frequently express the most reactionary ideas? They are certainly not a designated oppressed group, and therefore it is not of any great importance that crimes against them are inadequately repressed and thereby prevented.

Nevertheless, the logic of pursuing and severely repressing crimes such as that committed by Tweed is exactly the same as that of pursuing and severely repressing rapists.

If anyone were to write that he thought that rapists should not be locked up because they have had a difficult childhood, have psychological problems and aberrant personalities, including a tendency to take drugs and too much alcohol, and because prison does not work as evidenced by the fact that they often
commit the same sorts of crimes on release, he would be (rightly) regarded as a moral idiot. Yet the very same arguments are trotted out, with every appearance of convincing the people who trot them out of their own moral superiority over those who do not believe them, with regard to the kinds of crimes that make the lives of many old people in this country (to take only one example) a torment.

This is moral frivolity of a very high – or low – order. And it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that it has been predominant in this country for decades.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

Even as an advocate for increasing rape prosecutions, I agree, with one caveat: excusing rapists' actions because they have had a difficult childhood is something that happens every day. When juveniles are charged with sex crimes, their life circumstances factor heavily in both the considerations of the court and the types of support they receive from the community and activists. Despite all the righteous noise manufactured in some quarters, serial leniency remains the status quo in many (not all) sex crimes, and I suspect that is the real point.

Posted by: Tina Trent at April 25, 2009 01:38 PM


And nice to see the blog back in action.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 25, 2009 09:45 PM

There are a few cases where such acts are... not excused, but "explained". Usually these involve juveniles under 16, who have themselves been sexually abused, or severely mistreated in other ways.

There are also case like Prof. Unni Wikan, of the University of Oslo, who asserted that when Moslem immigrants rape Norwegian women, the women are partly responsible for not adjusting their behavior in a multicultural society.

Then there were the Australian "feminists" who denounced Crown Prosecutor Margaret Cunneen as a racist for winning conviction of a vicious gang of Moslem rapists.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom at April 29, 2009 03:26 AM

That rape, which is probably the most violent crime (apart from murder) that can be committed, and which can have lifelong mental effects on its victims, is not more frequently and severely punished, is atrocious. By contrast, the burglary figures are no big problem. Burglary (if unaccompanied by violence) is only a crime against property, not against life and limb, and so not by any means as great a violation as rape. People who are burgled are generally well off (there is no point in burgling someone who has nothing) and insured--so they lose nothing in the end. To compare burglary to rape seems to trivialise the seriousness of rape as a crime by comparison.

Posted by: Alex du Toit at May 1, 2009 12:01 PM

My “I agree” earlier was a bit unfocussed.  But actually, I do agree with most of what is said here.  Alex du Toit’s comment about the seriousness of rape is well-founded (though in fact poor people are extensively burgled, too).  It is still a standing disgrace how Christmas Humphreys in 1975 passed a suspended jail sentence on a man convicted of two counts of rape.

After another incident, the Ealing Vicarage Rape, the judge caused controversy when he said “the trauma suffered by the victim was not so very great”. Many people were outraged that  he gave the same number a years for the rape as he did for the burglary, as if the two were equally serious.  However, upon his retirement the judge, Mr Justice Leonard, publicly apologised for what he called the “one great blemish” on his career.  (Ivan the Terrible repented, Stalin never did.)

However, in regard to the article itself, I also agree with the philosophical thrust of Dr Dalrymple’s article, which seems to state that the liberals have erected a “bleeding heart” line with rape on one side and burglary on the other.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 1, 2009 10:50 PM

I don't think that the intention was to equate rape and burglary - rather that while the clear-up rate for rape is very small, so is the clear up rate for other crimes.

Posted by: James McQuenn at May 2, 2009 10:43 AM

"People who are burgled are generally well off...and lose nothing in that regard" is as absurd a statement as " probably the most violent crime (apart from murder) that can be committed."

This could only be spoken by a person who's never been assaulted, and lives in a fairy land of privilege. Take my word for it, losing your possessions to burglary (not to mention spending several years recovering from violent attacks) is every bit as violent as rape, and indeed has "lifelong mental effects on its victims."

Posted by: Rob De Witt at May 4, 2009 02:54 AM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement