Why the foreign prisoner scandal is worrying

This week the Government - and particularly the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke - became involved in a scandal involving the release of more than 1,000 “foreign criminals” without it being considered that they might be deported to their countries of origin. According to this BBC report, they include three murderers and nine rapists, and these:

Among the offenders, five had been convicted of committing sex offences on children, seven had served time for other sex offences, 57 for violent offences and two for manslaughter.

There were also 41 burglars, 20 drug importers, 54 convicted of assault and 27 of indecent assault.

That’s a total of 200 violent and sexual offenders out of more than 1,000. There are 100 whose crimes are not known to the Home Office (what?!), which means that most of the offenders are not violent or sexual. What are they then? Drug dealers, fraudsters, and perhaps people convicted of serious driving offences. Perhaps a lot of them should be kicked out of the country, and it seems that incompetence has been at work in this whole business.

But … what relationship do they really have to this country? Are they people who came to this country to commit crime? Did they come here as students or for some other reason, and get involved in crime? Or are they people who were brought here as children, and went astray because they ended up in bad schools or on sink estates where the pressures to go astray were that much greater than the opportunities to do otherwise? This does not excuse their criminal behaviour, but their behaviour is still our problem, and the result of our problems, and is not the fault of their societies of origin.

Scandals like this are likely to lead to laws making it easier to kick out foreign criminals, and obliging that they be kicked out, but this could be a bad thing, for two reasons. First, many of them have been here since childhood, and their criminality may well have began here, not in their country of origin. We know that kids who live on rough estates are more likely to get into crime than those living in middle-class leafy suburbs, because the schools might not be very good (and wanting to learn might not make them very popular among their peer group, a particular problem for boys), opportunities for honest work might not be in abundance, and so on. It’s simply immoral to dump people who became criminals in this country, having been brought up in this country, on poor third-world countries, because it results in gangsterism being exported to those countries. This is exactly what has happened in many central American countries as a direct result of laws passed under Clinton. It could also produce contacts between local gangs and British gangs, making smuggling of counterfeit goods, drugs and people easier.

Second, some of these people (and certainly some of the people affected by any new law which might be introduced as a result of this affair) might not be hardened criminals at all, but people who caused fatal accidents or were involved in domestic or other disputes which got violent, and so on. As in the USA, these people could also be eligible for deportation to countries about which they know little - and where they have no family and thus no support network, and do not speak the language. It may well split up families in this country, often by sending back parents, leaving one parent to bring up children alone.

By all means, if people came to this country for criminal purposes, or committed a serious crime while a guest in this country, they should be expelled promptly after finishing their sentence. But any law introduced to quell media-manufactured outrage over “foreign criminals” is a recipe for a humanitarian disaster, both here and in the criminals’ countries of origin. Does nobody remember the outrage caused when other countries - usually the old white Commonwealth - send back criminals, usually rapists, who emigrated as children but never took citizenship? It is somewhat hypocritical to export British crime to countries far less equipped to deal with it than the UK is.

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