Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns

Lisa, if you don’t like your job you don’t strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed. That’s the American way.” – Homer Simpson

Does anyone have a job that involves them in delivering an objective with which they fundamentally disagree? What do you do? I have always been fortunate, whether because I have very flexible principles, or because I have always worked for wise Councillors and managers. I have never been told that a policy needed to be implemented, and found myself wholly at odds with it – but I imagine it could happen. This might sound like a random stream of consciousness, but I was talking to a friend recently in Children’s Services, and he regards a large part of his job as being, and I’m only paraphrasing very slightly, to make sure “no child convicted of criminal behaviour is ever given a custodial sentence”.

Now, he’s fully signed up to this, and of course I buy a lot of the arguments – sending, say, a young shoplifter to prison at their first conviction is just as likely to lead them to an extended life of serious crime as it is to scare them straight. Community sentences can work, but more important still is his wider work – trying to figure out what went wrong, sort out their family life if possible, get them into some kind of intensive fostering if not, and find them other opportunities to give them an ambition for a more productive life than that of petty crime.

But a lot of these kids aren’t naive young shoplifters tempted in the heat of the moment. A fair number of them are serial offenders terrorising their local communities, which are looking to the Council to help them deal with the impact that’s having on local quality of life, just as much as the youngster might be looking to us for a way out. Some of them can of course be turned around by non-custodial measures, but some of them seem to see the help they get as a get-out clause, put on the crocodile tears long enough for the magistrates, and then head straight back to their life of crime. At least one of them has committed a serious sexual assault. And sure, they have a troubled home life, and so on – but I imagine their victim has quite a troubled life too, if they didn’t already. One only has to look at this morning’s front pages to recognise that very young children are capable of acts which I cannot find a word other than ‘evil’ to describe.

So I’m torn, I don’t know to what extent this “no kid goes into custody” is a Council policy, to what extent the elected Councillors know about it, and what would happen if the local newspaper decided to make a scandal out of the fact that taxpayers’ money is being used to keep free precisely the people that I would bet most local voters want us to help catch and lock away. Or is this largely driven by professionals who hold to a sociological theory of crime? What happens when one of them reoffends in a really serious way, and the national papers get hold of the fact that he was kept out of custody largely on the sayso of a council officer?

What would you do if you found yourself in that role, and those were the pressures on you – but you believed custody was sometimes the right option? Or do people who feel that way just not go into children’s social work? Alternatively, what if you believed that there was always a better alternative to custody, but the Council adopted a policy requiring you to support custody for certain offences, or after a certain number of repeat offences?

I don’t have any easy answers, and maybe the problem often solves itself, as in this case, by the jobs people choose – I was just wondering!

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3 responses to “Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns

  1. Disclaimer: I don’t have any answers, easy or otherwise.

    Great post by the way- a lot of interesting points, a lot of interesting questions. Seeing as we’re musing out loud here (can you do that in writing?), what caught my eye in your post was the point about what might happen should “the local newspaper decided to make a scandal out of the fact that taxpayers’ money is being used to keep free” such offenders. If only! I don’t believe most local newspapers would-such is the decline, in my opinion, in the quality of local news reporting. A far more likely scenario is that sadly, serious re-offence resulting in national scrutiny would have to occur before the underlying issues are exposed. Is it not a sad indictment that local newspapers increasingly fail to play an active role in precipitating this kind of scrutiny of council practices within the community? I think in light of the current debate on the survival of local media and the need for government intervention/support, the quality of the output of our local newspapers and the role they play in the community needs to be scrutinised too.

    • thelocalgovernmentofficer

      Yes – I regret the passing of good local journalism, but I don’t see keeping the poor local papers that exist in a lot of the country on some kind of life support as a decent proxy for bringing it back.

      There’s a lot said about bloggers and how online communities can take the place of local newspapers in engaging with local politics, and maybe increasingly the penetration of the internet is high enough that they can for a lot of people. But where do they get their primary information from?

      That’s the think with blogs that I’m not sure we’ve got sorted yet, they’re very rarely investigative. They’ll report on information that’s already in the public domain, they’ll analyse it and comment on it, but they’re less good at drawing it out in the first place.

      Sure, they can rely on mass FoI requests by lobby groups, like the TPA, but those are equally driven by an agenda, and national rather than relevant to specific local cases, so if the local media don’t pick up on the story, where do the bloggers get it from?

      A good opposition Councillor (or administration if it’s going on in an officer-led way without Councillors being informed) picking it up, maybe?

  2. Aaargh! If only real-life had simple problems to which there were easy answers. Please see earlier disclaimer. I agree with your assessment of the limited investigative capacity of most bloggers. There are several reasons for this but the most glaring, to my mind, is the lack of funding available to support the time-intensive nature of investigative journalism. Unfortunately, the sheer number of blogs and the lack of clear means for businesses (potential advertisers) to assess the quality and popularity of those reporting on local issues mean that serious advertising revenue isn’t yet available to many who blog on local issues. I’m certain this’ll change as more people turn to blogs for their local news and natural selection causes the best to rise to the fore and symbiotic systems develop to support this. Some corollaries of such prominence will surely be better quality news tip-offs and increased accountability (hence a need to better investigate stories of interest before posting) due to greater scrutiny. Or perhaps the financial straits of many local papers will mean they’re open to working collaboratively with such bloggers and we’ll see a happy marriage (or some sort of co-habitation) of the best traits of both?

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