The UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice has approved, for submission through the Economic and Social Council to the General Assembly, a resolution drafted by Thailand. The resolution encourages countries to look beyond the criminal justice system in preventing and responding to crime, and to come to grips with poverty, inequality, lack of education, poor prospects for employment, and community underdevelopment. The resolution marks the first time that the UN Crime Commission has drawn clear connections between crime prevention, criminal justice, the rule of law, and the sustainable development agenda adopted by the General Assembly in 2015. Once adopted by the General Assembly towards the end of this year, the resolution on Sustainable Development will serve to guide the work of the United Nations, and of individual governments.
By making an explicit connection between sustainable development and the causes of crime, the resolution reflects what practitioners and researchers have long understood: the criminal justice system on its own cannot protect society against crime. People tend to commit crime when they do not have any viable options. Unemployed people need food to eat; if they have no money to buy food, they may resort to theft. Homeless people need shelter; if none is available, they may illegally take over abandoned buildings. Ethnic minorities evicted from land taken over for industrial purposes, or whose livelihood has been destroyed by deforestation, are shunted to shantytowns and favelas, which may be breeding grounds for unrest.
The populist response to the danger of crime has been to give the police greater powers of arrest, and to increase the level of punishment. On the surface, this seems reasonable. The criminal justice system needs to be effective. We need to give the police the proper powers and tools to do their job, and we need imprisonment and other sanctions to deter potential offenders. If, however, economic and political inequality is bred into society, the criminal justice system will be directed more and more against vulnerable groups, such as the poor, the ethnic minorities and immigrants. It is they who will tend to be arrested by the police, processed through the criminal justice system and warehoused in overcrowded prisons. At some stage, they will be released from prison – generally to return to the same bleak, dead-end conditions that contributed to their original arrest.
The resolution, which Thailand submitted together with Japan, received the unanimous support of the UN Crime Committee on 18 May. Thailand found inspiration for the draft in lessons learned from the late King, His Royal Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, for example the importance of a sufficiency economy, and the need to address the root causes of crime. It also built on the work of Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra in assisting vulnerable ethnic minorities in the highlands of northern Thailand, guiding them away from opium poppy cultivation and drug trafficking, to sustainable social, economic and environmental development.
In the mountainous areas in Northern Thailand as recently as the 1960s and the 1970s, ethnic minorities did not seem to have very many options. The terrain seemed inhospitable to the growing of crops, and the forests and rivers provided barely enough to feed the family. The one crop that offered some prospect of financial gain was illegal, the opium poppy. As a result, Northern Thailand had become an entrenched part of the Golden Triangle, at the time the world’s main source of heroin and other illegal opiates.
The criminal justice system response to this was to punish those growing the poppies and to destroy their crops. This, however, resulted in a vicious circle of destitution and devastation. Individual offenders spent years in prison, communities were destroyed, and new poppy fields were sown in increasingly remote areas of the mountains, using “slash and burn” techniques that increased the deforestation.
One of the lasting insights of the late King and of Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra was that the members of the ethnic minorities themselves understood that the cultivation of opium poppies was illegal, and that this was destroying their communities, their environment and their culture. They simply did not see that they had any options. Under Royal patronage, however, entire communities were shown that there were viable and legal crops that could be grown, such as peaches and other fruit, tea and coffee, and orchids. In some areas, fisheries or livestock offered the promise of greater income. Ethnic handicrafts, such as weaving and ceramics, were encouraged. The communities were also helped in packaging and marketing the products, at first locally, then nationally, and ultimately internationally. In 2002, the United Nations declared Thailand to be “poppy free” – perhaps the greatest success story that the world has yet seen in alternative development.
This “development-led” approach to crime prevention is one of the two elements woven into the Thai draft resolution. The other is a “development-led” approach to criminal justice. Around the world, the criminal justice system has largely become a self-contained system, driven by its own logic. The police detect crimes and arrest suspects. The prosecutors and the courts seek to process these cases as efficiently as possible, struggling under constantly increasing case-loads. Imprisonment has become the cornerstone of the correctional system and is the default option for sanctions: calls for “getting tough on crime” generally mean that more and more offenders should be placed in prison, for longer and longer periods.
Overflowing prisons, however, generally cannot provide the type of rehabilitation that prisoners need – once they are finally released back into the community – to successfully reintegrate into the community by completing their education, finding a job and establishing a home. Some criminal justice systems have made reintegration even more difficult by denying those with a criminal record access to public housing. Having a criminal record may also prevent ex-prisoners from finding a job or continuing their education.
The development-led approach to criminal justice seeks to make decision-makers, whether on the policy-making level or on the practitioner level, more aware of what impact their decisions may have on the individual offender, the individual victim and the community. The interests of the three can be balanced in a way that supports reintegration of the offender, recovery and empowerment of the victim, and protection of the community. One obvious way is by cutting back on the excessive reliance that we place on imprisonment, by expanding the use of both traditional and modern non-custodial sanctions: restorative justice, community service, community-based treatment, and electronic monitoring. Also this is an area in which Thailand has shown the way forward. Her Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol, currently serving as the UNODC Goodwill Ambassador on the Rule of Law in Southeast Asia, initiated work on the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Sanctions for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules), which were adopted by the General Assembly in 2010. The Thailand Institute of Justice, together with the Thai Government and its counterparts, is seeking to promote this work throughout Thailand and more broadly Southeast Asia.
The fact that the UN Crime Commission welcomed the Thai resolution shows that there is growing understanding of the need to align decisions made in the criminal justice system with decisions made elsewhere, for example on health, gender equality, education, community development, the economy and the protection of the environment. The resolution identifies many ways in which this can be done.
Thailand has a proud record of success in this area, success that can serve as inspiration for other countries. We in Thailand, in turn, have much to learn from other countries and other cultures.
About the writer:
Matti Joutsen holds a doctorate in criminal law and was Director of the European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, affiliated with the United Nations (HEUNI). He has also served as a lower court judge in his home country, Finland, and has lectured and published widely on different aspects of crime prevention and criminal justice. His current focus is on international cooperation in responding to crime.