Smoking bans and crime: post hoc ergo propter hoc

Banning smoking in prison stops crime. The Daily Telegraph says so. It must be true.

The news (update: confirmed here) that the Government intends to ban smoking in prisons by 2011 isn't entirely surprising.

Smoking tobacco is, after all, indubitably bad for the physical health of both the person lighting up the fag and anyone else who has to breathe in the smoke emitted. And given that we've told the nation's air travelers, employees, private business owners and hospital patients that they may not spread poison around the rooms they inhabit, it is somewhat anomalous that people required to spend most of their time in close confinement remain free to do so.

I guess it is for this reason that Hone Harawira and the Green Party - two potential sources of criticism for this suggestion - have expressed conditional support for it. Provided there is sufficient support in the form of counseling, nicotine replacement therapy and the like, weening prisoners off tobacco (just like other addictive drugs) has to be to the good. Right?

Well ... yes, but only if you believe such support services are likely to be provided. And given the dire situation of existing drug and alcohol treatment programmes in our jails, there's good reason to be skeptical about any such promise. Consider this from a NZ Herald story that appeared in April of this year:

"Alcohol and drug counsellor Roger Brooking said 50 of the 51 prisoners he assessed in the past few years needed treatment.

Among his reports are two offenders who waited 24 years before being given an alcohol or other drugs assessment, and another who was not assessed until 12 years after his first conviction.

The cases involve repeat offenders whose list of offences include dangerous driving, possession of drugs, assault and murder."

I mean, if repeat offenders with murder on their rap sheet can't get treatment for their crime-causing addictions, what likelihood of significant help for a burglar who has to give up the ciggies while she does her 6 month stretch?

And further, just what is meant by "banning smoking in prisons"? Does it mean that prisoners won't be able to light up in their cells and common living areas? Or does it mean that prisoners won't be able to light up anywhere on prison grounds, even while outside in the open air?

The former crimp on a prisoner's liberty can, after all, be justified on good Millian "avoiding harm to others" grounds. But what exactly would the latter move be intended to accomplish, aside from a desire to force prisoners to give up nicotine as a drug? Celia Lashlie left no doubt about her views in one of the more passionate interviews I've heard on National Radio: it would be nothing more than middle class New Zealand imposing its views as to how the underclass ought to behave, and another chance for the Government to prove how it is "getting tough on crime".

We don't actually know what the Government is proposing, so I won't go that far just yet. [Update: it would appear a complete ban on smoking by prisoners is intended, but not a ban on smoking in prisons. Prison officers will remain able to smoke on prison property, albeit "in outdoor areas away from prisoners."]

But this "take the ciggies off the crims, they shouldn't be allowed to enjoy them" meme is already surfacing on some of the usual suspect blogs-of-the-right. (I won't link to them on principle - I've searched them so you don't have to.) And the "real" media may well be starting to edge towards that position as well.

Consider this NZ Herald story (or this earlier TVNZ report) dutifully parroting Whangarei Mayor Stan Semenoff's claim that banning smoking in the Isle of Man's prison led to a substantial reduction in the island's crime rate. Potential criminals, the theory goes, are so scared at having to give up their smokes that they are reforming their criminal ways.

Reading this immediately set alarm bells jingling in my head. First of all, it ascribes a rational cost-benefit basis to criminal behaviour that just doesn't seem relevant to the life stories of actual criminals. I mean, if prospective criminals really were able to reason in this fashion, then they would be good, rule-following members of respectable society. But they can't, so they aren't.

For another thing, the source of this claim about the Isle of Man apparently is this story in The Daily Telegraph. Now, I guess it is not logically impossible for a Torygraph (as Private Eye calls it) story about crime and prisons to be factually accurate, but you wouldn't bet your life savings on it. And a very quick Google search reinforced that suspicion. This story from the Isle of Man's own newspapers pretty much debunks the claimed link between a smoking ban and crime decline.

It's worth quoting it at length, in the hope that it might help put to bed any further citing of "the Isle of Man precedent":

"...having read the [Telegraph] article, [Isle of Man] prison governor Alison Gomme said: 'This is a very tenuous link and simplified approach to the causes and deterrence of crime.

'The Isle of Man Prison Service does not want to be associated with this story in any way other than to confirm that since the introduction of the Island-wide smoke free legislation the prison has been a smoke-free zone.

'Like other employers, we introduced the measures in order to support the health and safety of our staff and visitors to the prison as well as prisoners who are non-smokers.'

She added: 'To suggest that the operational policy of no smoking throughout the prison was introduced for more punitive reasons and to deter offenders from future crime is wrong and was never a consideration.'

The Department of Home Affairs has confirmed it was approached by a UK freelance journalist on December 22 after an ex-prisoner told him the smoking ban was a disincentive to re-offending.

But instead of confirming that the ban had directly affected crime rates, Chief Inspector Simon Lowe told the journalist: 'To suggest the falling crime rate is to do with a smoking ban at the prison would be a very tenuous link and difficult to prove.

'I don't believe for a minute that someone about to go out and steal something stops and thinks, "oh dear if I get caught I'm not going to be able to smoke for a few months". But anything that helps to reduce crime is welcomed by the police.'

He then attributed much of the success in reducing crime to neighbourhood policing, increased intelligence, longer sentences, and greater partnership working."