I've already lost count in this not-quite-yet-a-general-election campaign of how many times politicians have promised, by way of a solution, to criminalise various activities. Take, at random, the policy pledges in just one morning newspaper: the Tories are going to criminalise Travellers who don't fit in with planning law; Labour is to extend its concern for vulnerable children by criminalising 'bad' parents; and all parties are being urged to criminalise forced marriages.
Criminal law is currently being used as a blunt instrument. Solving problems and criminalising them are not the same thing. Do our politicians ever stop to consider how many undesirable activities have actually been driven out of existence merely by criminalising them? We criminalise the use and sale of some drugs, yet people carry on dealing and smoking.
It's time to wake up to reality. It might play well with a certain law-abiding section of the electorate that believes there is one simple answer to every dilemma, but threatening people with prison does not always work in the real world. And by a curious irony, the very politicians who are so keen to criminalise and hence incarcerate anyone who is outside the norms of society are also the ones who are least keen on spending money on trying to rehabilitate those outsiders once they are behind bars. More than 75 per cent of under-21s in prison will reoffend on release. As cures go, it is about as effective as the Atkins Diet.
There are many enlightened efforts under way to understand the causes of behaviour we now label criminal. If you get politicians on their own, most will admit that you have to understand the roots of antisocial behaviour and then tackle them effectively rather than just criminalise the individual.
It's common sense, but that doesn't play well with voters. So the Government has, along with pioneering third sector organisations, worked to build effective strategies to tackle youth offending, to take an example. But it prefers to draw a veil over such achievements as we approach election day. Voters don't want to hear that most problems are messy, complex and deep-seated, and the most effective methods for tackling them are not the one-size-fits-all answer of criminalisation but sensitive, individually tailored, long-term and often frustrating strategies that make no promises of success.
If any party has the courage to say that, it will get my vote.
Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster who sits on various trustee boards