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Quick Announce an Initiative…

David Green in The Times, July 2004

When the Government is about to publish crime figures that make it look bad, its usual ploy is to launch an 'initiative' a day or so earlier. In July the main crime figures are usually published and, right on cue, a five-year crime strategy has just been announced. However, the problem is not the lack of initiatives. This Government has been in office for seven years and has failed to get the simple things right. It has too few police on the streets and fails to imprison the majority of serious and persistent offenders. Moreover, the Prison Service neglects to take the most basic steps needed to encourage a law-abiding life on release. It does not adequately combat drug dependency in prison and fails to provide many prisoners with employment skills. On the Government's own admission, only 15,000 of the 100,000 persistent offenders, who commit half of all crime, are in prison. The Home Office report, Making Punishments Work (July 2001), found that many offenders with a long track record of previous convictions were not being sent to prison. Only 33% of males over 21 were sentenced to immediate custody when they had ten or more previous convictions. And if they had 3-9 previous convictions, only 21% were sent to jail. Even for serious offences like burglary, males over 18 received a custodial sentence in only 70% of cases when they had ten or more previous convictions. About 70% of prisoners have a drugs problem, but drug-dependent prisoners are not being dried out. One of the most urgent challenges is to get young offenders off drugs, but the National Audit Office found in January 2004 that Youth Offending Teams did not provide appropriate treatment in most cases: only 3% said they could 'always' provide drug rehabilitation for drug offenders, 54% said 'sometimes' and 25% 'rarely'. Basic and vocational skills are not being provided to anything like the required extent. Nearly half the juveniles in custody were six years behind the literacy and numeracy standards expected for their age, and a quarter were ten years behind. A fundamental aim of a Detention and Training Order (now the main custodial sentence for under-18s) is to ensure that they keep up their education. Half the time is spent in custody, and half in the community continuing education or training begun inside. The National Audit Office found that only 6% of Youth Offending Teams were providing young offenders with the opportunity to continue the education they had started while in custody. Seven years after coming to office, the Government is persisting with programmes that have failed. The Americans discovered years ago that intensive supervision in the community did not reduce crime, yet millions have been invested in the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP). In January 2004, the National Audit Office's preliminary assessment of ISSP in Newcastle and Swansea found that 60% of offenders did not even finish the programme. Offending Behaviour Programmes (such as cognitive skills courses), costing at least £2,000 each, have been found not to work. Recent Home Office studies found that reconviction rates did not fall. In 2002 over 7,000 courses were completed at a cost of over £15 m. They should be scrapped and the money put into basic and vocational education. Drug Treatment and Testing Orders in England have not worked. About 70% of offenders did not even complete their order and 80% were reconvicted of a crime within two years. Mr Blair's response to doubts about his leadership has been to revisit the issue that made his reputation. But the crime problem will not be solved by philosophical analysis of the 1960s counter-culture, or a side-swipe at 1980s individualism. His five-year plan, like the much vaunted targets before it, cannot conceal the Government's failure.

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