Bookmark and ShareAleksi Knuutila is a researcher in the Valuing What Matters programme at nef

Image by Antti Knuutila

With the glimmering colourful lights and the smell of popcorn, the Empire at Leicester square seems an unlikely place for serious discussion on public policy. Yet it may be the starting point for an important movement to change public perceptions and the politics of youth justice.

Yesterday about 400 people were gathered at the Empire for the first screening of the documentary The Fear Factory. The film powerfully described how the fear of crime is maintained by sensationalist media coverage and the cynical tactics of political parties. This has lead to harsher and more punitive responses to youth crime, which in many cases do little more than entrench the criminal behaviour. The documentary, produced by Spirit Level Films, is connected with a campaign for a criminal justice policy that is more humane and long-term in its perspective – and ultimately better at delivering safety for our neighbourhoods. nef’s latest report Punishing Costs was launched in connection with the screening.

With interviews from key experts and practitioners, the documentary shows how the public’s beliefs about the risk of becoming a victim and the general trends in the amount of crime were far from reality and all evidence. Britain has become a safer place in the past two decades – yet the fear of crime remains stubbornly high.

Unfortunately, it is perceptions that drive politics. One of the safest political strategies in the recent past has been to promise to crack down misbehaving youth and to hit them where it hurts. The Fear Factory documents how any deviation from this pattern is quickly struck down, as happened to Cameron when he suggested understanding the social causes of crime. The film also points an accusing finger at the media that gives disproportionate attention to violent cases and misrepresents sentencing as more lenient than it is in truth.

This reaction may actually create the monster that it so much fears. In the climate of alarm about youth crime, the imprisonment of children and young people has remained on very high levels. Prison as an intervention is incapable of dealing with the real causes of crime, and does little more than temporarily isolates an individual from contact with society. About three in four young people released from prison return to crime within a single year.

At the same time custody uses up massive amounts of resources that could have truly improved the safety on our streets. Our report Punishing Costs shows how the full cost of a year-long sentence in prison is £140,000. It is worth pausing to think about what could be achieved if these resources would be put to a positive use.

The screening was followed by an excellent panel that included some prominent criminologists and politicians – and an ex-editor of a tabloid who astonishingly displayed no sense of regret for his past role. Most of the panellist agreed that current policy was too much determined by knee-jerk reactions to high-visibility criminal cases in the media and an arms race between the parties to appear to be the true guardians of law and order.

One of the solutions they proposed by the speakers was to create a cross-party committee for a longer-term vision of developing criminal justice policy that all parties would sign up to. This would curtail the harmful competition between parties, which has led to the current punitive arrangements that hardly anyone believes to be productive or humane. Such a committee, together with a better debate and engagement with the public, is part of the recommendations of Punishing Costs.

Documentaries are powerful tools in transmitting knowledge and awareness of issues. At a time when the media is transmitting a largely false picture and political parties are failing to take the leadership to change perceptions, a film may be exactly the tool that is needed. I hope the Fear Factory, and the coalition forming to campaign around it, receive the attention they deserve.

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