Challenging public perceptions of criminals

Professor David Wilson, former governor of Grendon Prison

Professor David Wilson, former governor of Grendon Prison

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At least one person in the audience of last week’s Crime Night at the Gaiety Theatre thought 75 per cent of murders remained unsolved and that half of all crime was violent.

Our perception of crime is shaped by the media and the evening opened by challenging that with some interesting facts and figures.

What proportion of total crime involves some form of violence? Answers peaked at 50 per cent and many suggested 20 to 40 per cent, but the lowest offer of eight per cent was in fact the correct answer.

Figures were based on statistics for England and Wales in 2010. During that year there were 551 murders. How many of these were solved? asked Dr David Wilson, professor of criminology, former prison governor, TV presenter and our compere for the evening.

Some suggestions were as low as 25 per cent but in fact that year 92 per cent were solved – not least because statistically most people know their attacker, who is most likely a partner or close relative.

Former prisoners Noel ‘Razor’ Smith and Irwin James were then introduced to tell their life stories. Mr Smith, now in his early 50s, rarely went to school, his father drank and beat up his mother. Despite this, in his early teens, apart from stealing apples, he was not a criminal. But the course of his life changed one afternoone when he was 14. He and a friend were arrested without reason by police who beat both of them up in the back of the van, breaking one of his fingers

‘By the end of the afternoon we had confessed to 35 burglaries, which we had not committed,’ he said.

It sent him on a spiral into crime which ended with a lengthy prison sentence.

Mr James, who became a Guardian columnist, had a similar story. His mother was killed in an accident when he was seven. His father didn’t cope and aged 10 he was living rough. By the time he was an adult he was serving life for murder.

Both men were clearly intelligent, articulate and self aware, and the overriding message was that the prison system catastophically fails most offenders who, far from being rehabilitated to become useful tax paying members of society, are catapulted on to a downward spiral into a life of increasingly serious crime.

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