The corruption of punishment

by josieappleton

There is a degree of corruption in Anglo-Saxon criminal justice which has not been seen for several centuries. Because the use of power is neither governed by law, nor by systematic elite interests, the door is left open for punishment to be driven by personal material interests of officials themselves.

The on-the-spot fine provides a base pecuniary motive to punishment. Some council departments now subsist in large part from their fines income, meaning that an environmental department issuing fines starts to have a private, parasitic interest, apart from the public interest of the local authority. The department becomes a private business with its own circular and self-interested economy: wardens go out to issue fines, to pay for more wardens, to go out and issue more fines. The fine is the way in which they earn their salary; they subsist from their power to punish.

(This is an extract from Officious – Rise of the Busybody State, by Josie Appleton)

Such local authority departments become interested not in the most serious offences but in those which can yield the most fines, which are generally the minor offences which are most common and easiest to catch (the very easiest to catch are the cases where the person does not know they are doing anything wrong). The fine is no longer a necessary form of punishment to encourage lawful behaviour: officials need to fine, and so need the offence, and if there are no offences they need to invent them in order that they can continue to issue fines.

Wardens start to engage in low-life practices, tailing or following people, hiding around corners, chasing or intimidating them. Their relationship to the public is one of overt hostility and economic parasitism. One warden described the situation: ‘We spent our time stalking people who were smoking cigarettes… we were filming them. I have seen colleagues chase behind people to issue tickets, go into shops after people and take them out… They [his employers] started pushing for any sort of ticket.’

This corrupt aspect is even more pronounced when councils employ private companies to fine on a commission basis, as around 46 UK councils currently do. When a council contracts these wardens they are basically calling in the mercenaries against their own residents. Perversely, the local authority often sees the number of fines as a question of ‘performance’, citing an increase in fines as an ‘improvement in performance’. The fine – a tax and drain upon the public – is transposed into a form of public service and a measure of state efficiency.

In the USA open-ended confiscation powers have been used to bring in the budget for police departments or to settle personal scores. Cases abound of people being stopped and in effect robbed by the police, with the officer seizing cash or valuables from a car in lieu of a court case. Paul Craig Roberts called this a new age of ‘robber barons’, bare-faced theft by the authorities which leaves property rights in a tenuous position.

What is significant is the base and erratic quality of this parasitic punishment. There have been previous societies in which elite corruption and rent-seeking were carried out in a systematic manner, such as systems of patronage or local pork-barrel politics. In these cases, payments were based on self-interest but they also regulated and contributed to social order. By contrast, the self-interest of officious punishment is privatised and random, working not to social order but to the anarchy of robber barons or pirates. In failed states power belongs to any man with a gun; in officious states power lies with any person with an official badge that endows the power to fine.

This has been shown by several instances of conmen posing as wardens. They wore fake uniforms and badges, watching the public for minor misdemeanours for which they issued a ‘fine’ and marched them to the cash machine. Councils and the private security company criticised this fraud, but the uncomfortable fact is that the conmen revealed the actual substance of their public service to be nothing more than private profiteering. The conmen’s actions were not substantially different in content or consequences to those of the authorised officers. In both cases, wardens were looking for people to fine in order to earn a salary. The criminal act showed the truth of state activity.

(This is an extract from Officious – Rise of the Busybody State, by Josie Appleton, Zero Books. I discussed this issue last night on BBC’s Panorama)

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