A manifesto for radical law and order reform: how Britain can beat the menace of crime
David Green in the Sunday Telegraph, June 2006
A Crime Reduction Manifesto
A web search of recent newspaper coverage quickly shows a strong clash of opinion. Intellectuals who see themselves as the progressive elite claim that we are the jail capital of Europe with more prisoners per head of population than any other EU member, something they attribute to judicial savagery and popular vindictiveness. Others complain about judicial leniency. The government has been getting increasingly annoyed with the British public for having an 'exaggerated fear' of crime. Others point to increasing violence and disorder.
How much crime do we have compared with other countries and with our own history? In 1950 there were over 461,000 crimes recorded by the police. In 2004/05 there were over ten times more at 5.6 million.
Police records of crime throughout Europe reveal that England and Wales had the fourth highest crime rate out of the 39 countries in the 2003 European Sourcebook of Crime, the latest figures available from the Council of Europe. After standardisation, our figure of 9,817 crimes per 100,000 population, was more than double the average of 4,333, and was beaten only by Norway, Sweden and Finland. However, the Government wants us to use the British Crime Survey (BCS), which found about 11 million crimes in 2004/05, down from its 1995 peak of over 19 million. But the trouble with the BCS is that it only covers about half the crime recorded by the police. It misses out murder, rape, drug crime, fraud, all crimes against under-16s, and all commercial crime including the biggest of all, shoplifting.
To sum up, and allowing for the confusion caused by Government interference with the methods of counting crime, we can say that crime is down from a peak in the mid-1990s and has now reached a plateau of about ten times the rate in the 1950s. Violent crime is increasing slowly. We are a high-crime society with a complacent government.
Policy making is dominated by a 'progressive left' consensus, which is influenced by two incompatible theories, united only by their hostility to the established order. The first is social determinism, which can be detected behind theories that see crime as the inevitable result of poverty or social exclusion. To reduce crime we must first end social exclusion. The second belongs to the heirs to Rousseau, who also dislike modern society but for a different reason. People are natural altruists who are corrupted by social institutions. Changes should be made to allow this natural goodness unhindered development. Schools have been particular targets, especially those with honour boards listing the sycophants who had been head boy and whose hypocritical 'manners maketh man' mottos had deceived the young.
Two rival traditions reject both determinism and utopianism. One, typified by Hobbes, emphasises the idea of the individual as a rational, self-interested calculator. The other, of which Adam Smith is a champion, said that people are moral agents guided by a conscience that is shaped by the wider society.
We can recognise in the ambiguous policies of the Labour government a clash between these rival views. Belief in the innate goodness of people is reflected in the utopian attachment to rehabilitation in the face of repeated failure. It resembles a faith that is immune to facts, because to question it is to renounce it. Moreover, its adherents feel morally superior to rivals whose views can be caricatured as nothing but celebrations of naked self-interest. A mental block prevents them seeing that institutions, such as the family, schools and laws are not enemies of the good but the very means we use to fashion the shared beliefs and standards of right and wrong that create the conditions in which all can flourish. Practically speaking Adam-Smith liberals aim to cherish the social institutions that work well and to improve the ones that don't. Followers of Rousseau want to get rid of them so that natural altruism can find its true expression.
Many Labour MPs remain in thrall to utopian theories of human nature and believe that criminals are driven to commit offences by social exclusion. They are not really responsible - it's society that should change. But this attitude does not go down too well on council estates, where the majority think that crime is all about knowing right from wrong. Jack Straw, Labour's first home secretary, published a white paper entitled 'No More Excuses' to ram home the message that Labour had changed. But, as the recent battle over the Education bill showed, many in the Labour party never really accepted the new realism of Blair. And, despite the 'tough' rhetoric, the dominant influence at every stage has remained a dislike of prison, a naive view about how hardened offenders can be rehabilitated, and an underlying lack of respect for the mass of people, who stand accused of being unduly fearful of crime.
Prison policy has also been ambiguous. Labour has increased the prison population by about 16,000 since 1997, but simultaneously it is letting hardened offenders out early under home detention curfew and urging judges to send fewer criminals to jail. Moreover, huge sums have been poured into 'tough' alternatives to prison that are supposed to rehabilitate offenders, such as intensive supervision, community drug treatment, and offending behaviour programmes. It still persists with them, even though none have worked.
'Tough' community sentences The Government's recent five-year strategy takes the view that too many people are in prison, and it hopes to reserve custody for the most serious offenders. It says that short sentences are not effective 'either at punishing the offender, or at stopping them committing crime again'. Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, in a classic triumph of faith over fact backed up the Government in May: 'I would contend that a community sentence is more likely to prevent re-offending than a prison sentence'. The evidence m'lud?
The Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP) is supposed to be the toughest of the tough alternatives to prison. At a cost of about £45m, it initially targeted 2,500 of the most serious young offenders. It lasts for six months and, in addition to tagging and tracking, for the first three months offenders must take part in constructive activities for 25 hours a week, followed by 5 hours a week for the final three months.
With typical hype, a Government press release began with the headline, 'New report shows positive start for bold and imaginative scheme'. However, the independent evaluation by Oxford University found that it was less effective than normal community sentences. Not only did the latter cost much less, their reoffending rate was 84% after 12 months, whereas under ISSP the figure jumped to 88%. Over half of offenders did not even complete ISSP, with the result that criminals, selected precisely because they were the most serious and prolific in their age group, were subject to only the most peremptory supervision.
An even more rigorous scheme was implemented for 18-20 year olds. They were required to undergo 25 hours a week of training or education for three months, followed by 12 hours a week for the next three months, plus tagging for an average of 11 hours overnight in many cases. The study found that 52% did not even complete the regime, largely because they simply refused to comply with the conditions. On average, they only lasted 25 days before breaking the agreement. The study is silent about reoffending rates. Again, persistent and serious offenders, with an average of 27 previous convictions, who should have been locked up were free to commit crimes on the pretext that they were subject to rigorous community control. Anyone can read these studies on the Home Office website, an opportunity apparently not so far seized by the Lord Chief Justice.
Drug Treatment and Testing Orders in the community that require drug takers to submit to regular tests have also failed. About 70% of offenders did not even complete their order and 80% were reconvicted of a crime within two years.
Offending behaviour programmes based on cognitive-behavioural therapy have also failed. Offenders are taught to 'face up to their crimes and to change their ways'. In 2004 over £27 million was spent on schemes such as Reasoning and Rehabilitation, and Enhanced Thinking Skills, but a recent Home Office study found that very few criminals had 'changed their ways'. The reconviction rate was 75%, identical to that of the control group of similar offenders who did not take the courses.
The causes of crime
Most people do not commit crimes because they have been brought up with a conscience that tells them it's wrong to steal or to hurt other people. This is what good parents have always done. No one is a born criminal, but there is now a lot of evidence that their genetic endowment makes some children more likely to become criminals than others. Most parents know that you can be faced with a difficult child, however sophisticated your parenting skills, and this is why having two parents matters. A lone parent faced with an undemanding child may be able to manage, but when the child needs constant attention to prevent him from going off the rails, a single mother or father will struggle. Often such children end up in care. The Home Office has found that 27% of prisoners had been in care and 47% had run away from home.
But, having two parents is no guarantee against crime if one of the parents is a criminal or a drug user. One Home Office study found that 43% of prisoners had a family member with a conviction, and 35% had other family members who had been in jail.
Schools can reinforce the efforts of parents, or they can undermine them. Schools can also help to make up for parental deficits, but if the school is disorderly and fails to control bullying, crime is encouraged.
The criminal justice system also plays a part in moral education. Picture parents struggling to raise their children to be honest citizens on a run-down council estate. They urge them to respect other people and reinforce their appeals to youthful better nature with warnings about what happens if the police catch them committing crimes. But if the police fail, and other local kids are obviously committing crimes with impunity, then the good parents may seem like 'muppets' who don't 'get it'.
The wider society, especially in the form of people who write and broadcast via the mass media, also makes a difference. If there is widespread tolerance of crime or a tendency to make excuses, then such support can give criminals a way of rationalising their wrongdoing. If crime pays you will get more of it; and if the intellectual class is dominated by excuse-mongers, you will get even more.
If these are the causes, what are the solutions? We need a better strategy for two groups: first we need to control the existing criminals and second, we need to discourage youngsters in danger of becoming the criminals of the future.
We should increase police numbers and switch police effort to New-York style primary prevention, often called 'broken windows' policing. In England and Wales in 2000 we had 237 police officers for every 100,000 population. The French had 396 police officers for every 100,000 population, 67% more. But they had a much lower crime rate, 6,405 crimes for every 100,000 population, 35% lower than ours. In 2005 there were 143,000 police officers, up from 127,000 in 1997, but there is still a long way to go.
One deliberate misunderstanding should be squashed. Punishment and rehabilitation are not opposites; they can go together. Apart from criminals whose offences are so heinous that they can never safely be released, the aim of policy should be to welcome offenders back into the community of law-abiding citizens. But we need to combine our wish to reintegrate criminals into the law-abiding mainstream with a bit of realism. Despite decades of trying, we have not yet discovered very effective ways of rehabilitating offenders, and we need to protect the public while the search continues for better methods. We need to be clear about what prison is for. It's main value is that it protects the public: while offenders are in jail they can't break into your house. But it's not a matter of throwing away the key, and time inside should be spent preparing to lead to law-abiding life on release.
First, we should increase prison capacity. On the Government's own admission, there are about 100,000 offenders who commit half of all crime. It thinks that only 15-20,000 are in jail at any one time. We need a crash programme to lock up the other 80,000. The Home Office's own projections suggest that over 91,000 prison places could be needed by 2011, but provision is not being made. Instead, the Government is letting prisoners out early under Home Detention Curfew and it has a policy of not allowing the prison population to exceed 80,000.
Second, we should improve prison régimes by getting prisoners off alcohol and drugs. All should be subject to mandatory drug testing on admission to jail and treatment for all who need it should start immediately. At present there are random tests and tests on suspicion - meanwhile drug taking remains common. A Home Office survey of prisoners in 2001/02 found that 39% of prisoners interviewed had taken drugs whilst in their current prison, about one-third cannabis and 21%, heroin. Controlling addiction is not easy, but prison-based therapeutic communities combined with intensive aftercare, have proved to be effective ways of reducing addiction.
Third, we should provide educational and vocational skills for all prisoners. American studies have found that inmates who had acquired vocational qualifications reoffended 33 per cent less than other offenders. There is already a large educational programme but many prisoners leave without benefiting. The extra cost could be met by ending wasteful expenditure on failed offending behaviour programmes.
Impose the full sentence and abolish parole
We should abolish parole and introduce what has often been called 'truth in sentencing'. At present release at the half-way stage is automatic for nearly all prisoners, and can be even earlier under Home Detention Curfew. The normal rule should be that the whole sentence is served unless offenders earn up to 20% off for good behaviour, subject to their agreement to be supervised in the community for the remainder of the original sentence.
Discouraging recruitment of the next generation of criminals
We need to increase social investment in early socialisation and combating disorder in schools. Most people do not commit crimes because they have been brought up to share the community=s standards. No crime policy will be able to alter beliefs and attitudes if the institutions for encouraging social cohesionCespecially the family and schoolsCare in a weakened state. Home Office studies have found a link between family breakdown and crime, but the Government has done nothing to strengthen the family based on marriage.
For many young offenders their primary socialisation has failed and steps should be taken to initiate them into the community's sense of right and wrong. If their family is a bad influence, they need to be removed to a law-abiding environment. A graduated scheme is necessary, beginning with a 'welfare' approach. However, if offences continue to be committed, the level of intervention by the authorities should escalate. The more recalcitrant the offender, the more determined the response should be. Our system fails to react with sufficient resilience when dealing with persistent offenders. Once offenders have been convicted three times for an indictable offence, there is such overwhelming evidence that they are likely to spend the next several years committing offences that they should be sent to secure institutions for a significant period, with a minimum of 12 months and a maximum of three years, followed by intensive supervision for 12 months or more after release.
Why can't young people be assisted in the community? Because frequently, their home conditions are the cause of their offending. Sometimes their parents are drug addicts or themselves criminals. In other cases, an older brother or a dysfunctional neighbourhood are a bad influence. Once a youth has reached the age of 14 or so, it is not easy to unravel all the harmful influences of the previous 14 years and only a sustained effort away from crime-friendly home influences can be expected to help.
The state of the debate
The consensus that emerged in the 1960s and 70s has been breaking down for some time, and we now have an intellectual elite that is out of step with public opinion. The Home Office, and elements of the judiciary and academia continue to block change. Tony Blair seems to agree, and wants to 'rebalance' the system in favour of victims, by which he means reducing many of our traditional safeguards for the innocent. But, as I hope I have shown, there are plenty of problems we can fix before we go that far. Increasing the number of police and building more prisons does not require 'rebalancing', but it does need a resolute government. Scrapping failed schemes, such as ISSP, ICCP, and cognitive behavioural therapy can also be accomplished without adding to the risk of false imprisonment. Humanising prison regimes to focus on drug rehabilitation and providing all inmates with a job-market skill also needs no 'rebalancing'. Ending the folly of early release at the half-way stage, not to mention home detention curfew under which as little as a quarter of the sentence may be served, would involve no more than expecting prisoners to serve the full sentence of the court. And providing effective residential help for young people whose home conditions encourage them to become criminals is no more than common humanity demands.
The self-defined progressives who resist change resemble the East German border guards in 1989. One day they were shooting escapers dead; the next they were surrounded by exhilarated crowds with young girls sticking flowers in their rifle barrels. Perhaps we need a kind of truth and reconciliation commission to let the intellectuals off the hook. Royal Commissions have sometimes been a distraction, but now might be the right time to set up a body of independent-minded people to stand back, look afresh at the evidence and make recommendations about how best to make our criminal justice system effective without abandoning safeguards for the innocent.
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