The guilt trip

A revolution in crime policy is being put forward to ministers in which criminals are encouraged to

A woman sits in a police station. Beside her is the man who tried to rob her of her wallet. He says he is sorry; she is afraid and sceptical. But her assailant looks less menacing now. He has brought his baby and his girlfriend, who tells the victim that she is livid about what her partner did. An accident had stopped him working as a builder, she says. They were short of money, isolated, in despair. The victim accepts that her attacker feels remorse. In the light of this, the judge decides, for the first time ever, not to impose a jail term for robbery. Several years have passed. As far as anyone knows, this man has not committed another crime. Proponents of rebarbative measures will think this story emblematic of a soft-touch system. Others hope that such solutions are a foretaste of justice in Gordon Brown's Britain.

A report published on 8 February suggests a revolution in law and order thinking for the UK, with restorative justice (RJ) at its heart. Law rence Sherman, Wolfson Professor of Criminology at Cambridge University, and his co-author, Heather Strang, have evaluated evidence worldwide for the first time, and come up with conclusions that sound like manna for any crisis-swamped Home Secretary.

According to Sherman and Strang's research in Australia, the US and Britain, RJ has been proved to reduce repeat offending by up to half. It has doubled, or more than doubled, the offences brought to justice by conventional means, has reduced crime victims' post-traumatic stress. And it could slash costs. Controversially, it appears to work better for more serious types of crime.

Restorative justice has been used as an alter native or adjunct to the criminal system from America's death row, where relatives of murder victims speak to condemned perpetrators, to Dudley Zoo, in the case of a gang of youngsters who kicked a wallaby to death. Normally, the victim and the offender meet along with relatives and mediators - often specially trained police officers - who help draw up agreements, designed to allay victims' fears, and chart a course of action, such as drug treatment, that will stop the perpetrator reoffending. The tough-on-crime lobby may shrink from such collegiate problem-solving. But Sherman says: "The main question is what works - not what the bastards deserve. In giving vent to our own temper, we only make things worse."

The number of prisoners in England and Wales is at a record 80,000 and rising. Government sentencing guidelines mean longer jail terms, and the lack of drug treatment, rehabilitation and education contributes to a reoffending rate of 76 per cent. Women and the mentally ill are warehoused in institutions that cannot cater for their needs or safeguard their lives. Self-harm and suicide are rife, and 29 young boys have died behind bars since 1990. Apart from Luxembourg, Britain is the most intensive jailer in western Europe, squandering money and humanity to scant avail. Though crime is falling, with murder down 15 per cent for 2005 if you exclude the 7 July bombings, the public has rarely felt less safe.

In this climate, a mood in favour of RJ has been building. The Archbishop of Canterbury called for its adoption in his Prison Reform Trust lecture at the beginning of this month, and many judges, including the former Lord Chief Justice Harry Woolf, are vocal champions. Rob Allen, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London and a member of Sherman's steering committee, says: "The current crisis in the Home Office clearly exposes the limits of relying simply on punishment to solve complex social problems. Properly resourced and led, restorative approaches promise a more productive way of tackling the harm alongside, and in some cases instead of, conventional criminal justice."

Researchers' randomised trials produced some startling results, notably among North umbrian teenage girls in trouble with the police. Half had an RJ conference; the others went into the criminal justice system. The RJ group of poor, violent white girls proved twice as likely to stay clear of trouble. Judging by the findings, the RJ conferences prevented 71 crimes for every 100 offenders.

RJ appears to work better with more serious crimes, such as robbery, than with victimless offences such as shoplifting. Researchers think that violent offenders may be persuaded to change their ways after realising how much grief they have caused victims, who are often similar to them. Sherman believes that crimes of high emotion may lead to greater remorse. For him, the single most potent argument for RJ is that it is much more likely to bring offenders to justice than a criminal system in which cases routinely fail for lack of witnesses or proof. But the rule of law, whether enshrined in sharia or the English statute book, has a cautious relationship with informal solutions.

Early evangelists

Will Brown allow Britain's criminal justice system to be revolutionised on his watch? The Treasury was one of the first evangelists for RJ. Eight years ago, when the Home Office turned down a request for funding, one of the Chancellor's staff seized on the idea and offered funds.

Later, the Home Office relented, offering modest amounts. RJ gained a toehold, especially in youth justice, but the biggest slice of a £4.9m government grant went into testing the system on adult burglars and robbers, who met their victims at conferences held in London prisons. All the offenders went on to be sentenced at Crown Court, where the judge was made aware of any remorse, explanations or apologies offered.

These conferences were held in the presence of high-profile onlookers. The cream of the judiciary and ministers, including the Attorney General, watched an extraordinary experiment in justice. As the only journalist allowed to sit in, I saw the meeting at Pentonville Prison between a drug-addicted burglar and his victim, an elderly Turkish widow. Maria dared not leave her front room, where she slept on the sofa with a knife beside her. Her daughter and her son, a City lawyer, had had to sacrifice their independence and return home to care for their mother. Alexi, who had wandered into someone else's kitchen in search of money for a fix, had ruined a family's existence. He promised to go straight, and perhaps he did. His victim, faced with a needy wastrel rather than the monster of her imagination, had got her life back.

When the conference ended, amid tears and rapprochement, it was as if a seance had been ruptured. Back at the Home Office, an even sharper awakening was in store. Despite pleas by some judges, funding for the project was wound down, excellent police teams were disbanded, RJ lost its showcase, and victims - the undisputed beneficiary of restorative solutions - had a potential lifeline removed. Two years have passed, and critics talk of "the dead hand of the Home Office".

RJ is not short of cheerleaders. Charles Pollard, the former Thames Valley chief constable, says the Sherman report "quashes the idea of a fluffy solution in which offenders get off lightly. This is hard-edged research, and it [RJ] is a no-brainer." The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, which funded the study's publication by the Smith Institute, has been a pioneer in the promotion of RJ. So has Cherie Booth. She told me, some time ago, that the government should do more. "If the evidence shows it [RJ] is successful, in particular in helping cut reoffending, I believe it could boost confidence in the criminal justice system."

Now that some hard evidence is on hand, could the Prime Minister's wife and the Chancellor, whose relationship is famously glacial, find a concordat in endorsing an alternative, if fallible, justice system? Enver Solomon, deputy director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, warns that, despite its "distinctive benefits for offenders and victims", it should not be seen as "a magic bullet".

Despite widespread enthusiasm, some leading figures in criminal justice are said to be even more sceptical. And where RJ appears to work, important questions remain. When should it be used instead of court proceedings, rather than as a supplement? How can vulnerable offenders keep promises to stay off drugs or drink if they cannot get good treatment? What kinds of crime should RJ deal with? Canada reports success in domestic violence cases, and Strang and Sherman cite a successful Australian case in which a man who tried to kill his girlfriend's alleged rapist was dealt with through RJ rather than the courts.

Powerful drug

There are still many mysteries as to why restorative justice works (or fails to work), and when, and on whom. Sherman and Strang concede that there is much work to do. Their report calls it "a powerful drug which needs to be carefully tested for specific kinds of cases before it is put into general practice".

The next step, they say, is to expand their research and run it to scale. Last month, King's College criminologists sent Brown a paper recommending a Restorative Justice Board, similar to the Youth Justice Board, and possibly annexed to a new Ministry of Justice. The projected cost for a board plus an RJ roll-out over the three financial years from 2008 to 2011 is £71m, £221m and £317m.

Treasury insiders say Brown has doubts about investment in such a major expansion. What works on a small scale may not, in his view, be replicated. In addition, the Chancellor is at pains to stress his "toughness". Some criminologists believe that, on criminal justice, you could not slip an Asbo between Brown and Blair. None the less, those close to the Chancellor say he is instinctively sympathetic to RJ as well as to its close cousin, community justice.

RJ is likely to appeal to him on two levels. The first is that a justice system re-rooted in humanity, compassion and mutual understanding fits with his championing of the good society and his targeting of "hearts and minds". The second imperative is cost. The Treasury has been reluctant to bankroll John Reid's eye-wateringly costly plans to build his way out of the jail crisis. It costs £35,000 a year to keep each offender behind bars at present, and RJ could yield substantial savings. So far, the evidence of success is modest, but growing numbers of criminologists, police officers and sentencers are arguing that the government must now build on the first worldwide evaluation of its benefits.

If Brown can be persuaded, then justice could face the most radical upheaval in memory. Assuming the proponents of RJ are right, the shift could begin to empty prisons, reduce reoffending and halt the criminalisation of children. The promises are not underwritten, but the alternatives are demonstrated every week by a criminal system in free fall. The question is not so much whether Brown dares take up the challenge of restorative justice. It is whether he dares not to.

The international experience
Research by Sophie Pearce

In Northern Ireland restorative justice (RJ) was legally enforced in the Justice Act 2002, in the form of "youth conferencing" for young offenders. A study of 185 meetings found that 85 per cent of victims received an apology they were satisfied with from the offender. Northern Ireland also has community restorative justice (CRJ), which is used to address low-level crime and neighbourhood disputes. The recidivism rate for the 400 cases dealt with by CRJ each year is estimated to be as low as 8 per cent.

RJ has also been successful in curbing crime in Australia and the US. In Canberra, recidivism fell by 84 per cent when offenders under the age of 30 were assigned RJ, while the number of offences brought to justice rose by 75 per cent for adolescent shoplifters and 45 per cent among violent offenders under 30. In Indianapolis only 15 per cent of violent offenders subjected to RJ reoffended within six months, compared to 27 per cent of those given standard punishments.

However, specific groups have shown discrepancies. Recidivism among Aboriginal youths and drink-drivers in Canberra actually rose when RJ was applied, and in Pennsylvania, young people arrested for theft were found more likely to reoffend if given RJ. None the less, in all these cases the samples were deemed too small to be conclusive.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge