In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States engaged in a vast experiment in which political jurisdictions from top to bottom reduced both the certainty and severity of punishment for nearly all crimes, especially for violent crimes and those involving what used to be called public vices. The experiment, as the statistics show vividly, was a disaster, and two decades after its effective end we are still reeling from its effects. Crime has decreased, but it is still far above the levels it was at in the early years of the past century.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, however, and the people of Great Britain are now experiencing those awful effects. Britain has almost completely disarmed the noncriminals among its citizen population, and it has greatly reduced criminals' likelihood of capture, prosecution, and punishment, as a Times of London report of today notes in the case of one particularly brutal type of crime:
"According to government figures published yesterday, only one in eighteen rapes reported to police ends with the suspect being punished, although government ministers have pledged to increase the number of convictions."
The vast increase in burgularies and home invasions in Great Britain has been well documented in recent years, and now, obviously in response to this low rate of capture, conviction, and punishment in sexual assault cases, a new blight has arisen. This results in the familiar downward spiral of crime, in which victims cease bothering to report crimes because they see little use in confronting their attackers, who will almost surely go free anyway. The Times reports:
"[the Home Office] estimated that the actual number of rapes in England and Wales is more than four times higher than the 11,700 reported to the police in 2002."
Thus a new strategy of rape has evolved:
"According to a study by the Home Office, groups of predatory men are now targeting drunken women to rape and sexually assault. Jo Lovett, one of the authors, said: "There are people who are undoubtedly targeting women who are drunk.'”
These men are taking advantage of the fact that cases in which there is any doubt whatever that the woman has refused consent are dropped very early in the legal process. In Great Britain today, a man who rapes a drunken woman is highly likely to go entirely unpunished even if the woman files charges.
The Blair government has expressed concern over the problem and has promised to increase the conviction rate. We certainly hope that they will succeed, although we are saddened that it required such an outbreak of horror to spur them to act.