Crisis in criminal justice: invoking The Wire
Heated hyperbole in the context of crime and criminal justice all too often leads to rushed, unnecessary and repressive legislation. Debate about justice policy is depicted as involving the polarities of crime control and due process (as if respecting the latter ineluctably leads to inefficiency and undue leniency), and the demands of crime control are given weight and justified by reference to dramatic and particularly heinous crimes. In this sense, exaggeration of the crime problem and stressing the failures of the criminal justice system are commonplace in political circles.
Such invocation of crisis was most recently illustrated by the UK Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, when he compared parts of Manchester to the streets of Baltimore (as depicted in TV series The Wire), despite the latter city having a homicide rate many times in excess of any area in the UK. Although TDs have yet to cotton on to such contemporary TV references, similar tactics have been used in Ireland to justify legislation including the Criminal Justice Acts 2006 and 2007, the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009 and the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. It has been alleged that Ireland is “more akin to downtown Bogotá than a modern European capital, such is the extent of gangland murder, assaults, and violent crime”; that “gangland law” now exists in Ireland; that “many of our urban areas are terrified by rampant gangland crime, which is apparently making huge parts of the country ungovernable” and that gun crime is “reminiscent of gang warfare in east Los Angeles”. Such commentary comes from across the political spectrum and provides ripe opportunity for the introduction of unduly “robust” measures that pay scant regard to traditional due process norms and values. Although the Irish judiciary, for the most part, remain resolute in upholding the due process rights of the individual, irresponsible invocations of places with far graver crime problems than Ireland heightens public fear and ratchets up the fearful tenor of political discourse. This in turn leaves any politician who fails to support such provisions open to accusations of being naïve and failing to grasp the reality of crime in communities.
Rather than relying on a comparison with The Wire or its equivalent to exaggerate the problem of crime, policy makers in the UK and Ireland should look to the series’ incisive commentary on the causes of crime to assist in the development of laws; namely savage deprivation; widespread failings in the educational system; cynical policing tactics; the misguided war on drugs; widespread hard drug abuse, and the persistence of a misogynistic and violent conception of masculinity.