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Displaying items by tag: Richard Garside

Between March and June this year the Ministry of Justice ran a consulation exercise on the reform of community sentences in England and Wales. Six consultation events were held and 247 written responses from a range of public, private and voluntary organisations, national and local, were received.

The Ministry's response was published this week. Criminal justice reform organisations welcomed some elements - proposals to develop further restorative justice iniatives for instance - while expressing concern about proposals to enhance further the 'punitive' element of community sentences.

Consultation exercises are odd affairs. Governments have generally made up their minds about what they want before launching a consultation. Organisations tend to respond in the hope of gaining minor concessions, or simply to be seen to have responded. 'Tell us how these great ideas we've come up with could be even better?' is all too often the general message from government.

And so it is with the community sentences consultation. The Ministry's response is a reaffirmation of the position set out in the original consultation, with a few minor tweaks and changes presumably to reassure respondents that the whole exercise has not been a complete waste of time.

One reason why consultations are such unsatisfactory affairs is down to the parameters set and assumptions made by government. These are set out in the little read impact assessment documents. The community sentences consultation impact assessment document is here.  It makes for interesting reading.

On page three we read the following:

'For many offenders, serving a sentence in the community... encourages rehabilitation by allowing the offender to maintain important links... that will assist in their ability to reform for good. However, this needs to be balanced with the importance of ensuring that non-custodial sentences provide recognisable punishment.'

In other parts of the impact assessment the Ministry concedes that punishment can be counter-productive: for instance if it displaces treatment and support. The trade off between punishment and rehabilitation is far more complex than this simple 'on the one hand... on the other hand' statement would suggest. But then the 'overarching aim' of the reforms 'is to increase the confidence of sentencers and the public in the effectiveness of community sentences'. The government had already decided that a more visible punitive element was the answer, and this despite the lack of evidence to back it up.

The impact assessment also estimates the cost of the proposed changes at 'between £35m and £60m per year', along with £10m 'set-up costs of providing funds for restorative justice'. These estimates exclude the costs of the satellite tracking proposals. These are likely to be substantial. They will also not be disclosed on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. The impact assessment also estimates that there 'may... be costs to employers and DWP' of changes to the fines regime.

In summary, most of the costs of the new proposals have either not been quantified or will not be disclosed. In an era of austerity it is striking that the Ministry of Justice is able to find additional sums for its pet projects as and when it needs to.

Finally, consider the 'policy options' the Ministry considered. These were:

'Option 0: Do nothing
Option 1: Community sentences... proposals'

The Hobson's choice the Ministry of Justice offered was 'any reforms you like as long as they're ours'.

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Reports by the National Audit Office (NAO) are good for the sleepless night. They rarely make for gripping reading. The NAO is, however, accountable to the House of Commons and carries the authority of that institution when it undertakes its work. Its reports often contain a wealth of material and information that otherwise does not make its way into the public domain.

The NAO's new report on the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) raises a number of important questions and issues. NOMS, for those not familiar with this agency and its particularly unlovely acronym, is an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). It is responsible for the management of those in custody and under community sentence in England and Wales.

NOMS manages directly 117 public sector prisons, with a workforce of 43,000 and a prison population of around 86,000. It also manages the contracts of 14 private sector prisons as well as other private sector contracts related to, for instance, prisoner escorts and electronic tagging. The work of Probation Trusts, which oversee around 165,000 people serving community sentences, also falls under its remit.

As part of its contribution to the austerity drive NOMS has to find savings of over £2 billion by 2014-2015, a reduction in its resource budget of 24 per cent in real terms.

So how is NOMS doing? As the NAO observes, NOMS 'does not control demand for its services'. That is determined by judges and magistrates. As a result, its 'financial position is vulnerable to unexpected changes in the prison population'.

NOMS is also vulnerable to shifts in the political mood, such as the one that took place in June 2011 when the Prime Minister waded into what had become a poisonous dispute over sentencing reform. Countering accusations that the attempt to control prison growth was driven by budget considerations, not public safety, Mr Cameron said 'We will always pay the costs necessary to protect the public and punish criminals and we will not reduce the prison population by cutting prison sentences. We must do it by making prison work'.

According to the NAO the knock-on effect of this intervention is a downgrading of the estimated reduction in the prison population. From the over 6,000 fewer prisoners by 2015 originally estimated by the MoJ as a result of proposed sentencing reforms, it 'now estimates that the number of prison places which are likely to reduce through sentencing reform has fallen to around 2,000'.

More prisoners mean more cost: some £130 million the NAO estimates. The NOMS 'savings targets... are now more challenging' it observes, in a classic civil servant's understatement.

This is a high price to pay for a few favourable headlines, now long forgotten, back in the early summer of 2011.

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The man with a hammer tends to see every problem as a nail. By the same token, the think tank in search of prison as the answer to crime will surely find it.

So it is that Civitas, a think tank that has long argued in favour of higher imprisonment rates, has published a paper arguing that tougher prison sentences result in lower crime.

The paper, written by the University of Birmingham economist Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, has a suitably academic feel to it. Tables with linear and quadratic regressions mix it with an impressively incomprehensible graph and knowing references to the ‘Sargan Hansen test’.

Those committed to the 'more prison equals less crime' proposition will seize on the paper, mostly without reading or understanding it. Those who have their doubts might struggle through the first couple of pages before turning to something more interesting.

So what does it argue? Those who did not get beyond the paper’s breathless media coverage might be surprised at its most striking finding: the more young adults - 15 - 24 year olds - living in a given area, the fewer are the burglaries, thefts, robberies and frauds recorded by the police.

The paper also finds a relationship between increases in the number of crimes the police successfully clear up - the so-called detection rate - and average sentence lengths on the one hand, and the numbers of burglaries, thefts, robberies and frauds recorded by the police on the other hand. Higher detections and longer sentences are related to some lower recorded crime rates, though not, apparently, robbery in the case of prison sentences.

If this all sounds like a rather flaky argument, that is because it is built on hopelessly shaky foundations.

It relies on police recorded crime data, a measure the author himself concedes is ‘a far from perfect indicator’. I have written elsewhere about the problems of using police recorded crime data. Relying on them to assess levels of crime in an area is akin to assessing the health problems of a neighbourhood through a Friday night visit to the local A & E department.

Statistical modelling, however impressive, tells us nothing of value when the data upon which it is built is stretched to snapping point.

At best, the paper demonstrates that certain factors - demography, income and employment levels, police and sentencing activity - are correlated, when different areas of England and Wales are compared, with the propensity of the police to record certain crime types.

These are interesting observations about bureaucratic processes. They do not prove that tougher sentences and higher police detections results in lower crime in the real world. Indeed the number of police detections fell at a faster rate between 2002 and 2010 than did police recorded crime.

The argument in favour of improved police detection and tougher sentencing also relies on a naive view of human nature, peculiar to economists, that individuals are largely rational calculators who calmly weigh up the benefits and disbenefits of any given action: stealing an iPhone for instance versus a long spell in prison if caught.

The idea that a career burglar might decide to ditch his trade in favour of running a flower stall because of marginal increases in prison sentence lengths strikes me as one of the more absurd implicit propositions of this paper. The obverse - that were it not for the threat of imprisonment I would happily mug my fellow passengers on the train home - is equally ridiculous.

Rational calculation might inform consumers' decisions to switch electricity suppliers. Applying the same logic to the complex social relationship that is crime is a mystifying simplification.

What is missing in all this dessicated number crunching is anything approaching a coherent analysis of human nature and motivations, the effects of social relationships and the potential for policy change that transcends the prison-punishment dead end.

The lesson of all of this: impressive graphs and complex tables do not of themselves a good argument make.

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There was an interesting session at yesterday’s Home Affairs Committee when Professor David Nutt, chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, and his colleague Dr Les King gave evidence to MPs. A video of the session is available on the Committee page. It is well worth a watch.

David Nutt was famously dismissed from his role of unpaid chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) by the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson back in 2009.

It was a controversial decision at the time. A number of other scientists resigned from the ACMD in protest and Alan Johnson’s reputation as a serious politician never really recovered. The decision probably did for any leadership ambitions he may have harboured.

For some at least the passage of time has clearly not healed. During the evidence session yesterday Mr Johnson’s former special advisor Mario Dunn tweeted that ‘No responsible government would have David Nutt as a drugs adviser’. This tetchy remark rather sums up the previous government’s problematic relationship with scientific advice and the evidence base.

A number of misunderstandings were clarified during the course of yesterday’s session.

Yes, all drugs are harmful in some way David Nutt said. The question is how harmful, and how harms compare. Cannabis, for instance, is far less harmful than alcohol. If the aim of policy making is to reduce drug harms, tackling alcohol consumption should be a top priority.

No, an unregulated drugs free-for-all is not a sensible replacement of the current regulation-through-criminalisation approach. But forms of regulated supply, in some cases under the supervision of medical professionals, do need to be looked at.

The criminalisation of drug use creates as least as much harm as the harm it seeks to control, if not more so. The war on drugs cannot be won, David Nutt argued.

And crucially, the current regulation-through-criminalisation approach is bad for science and innovation. Promising new therapies and treatments cannot be researched or applied because the substances are banned under current legislation.

Throughout the session a number of the Committee members visibly struggled with the divide between current drugs policy and the implications of the scientific evidence of relative drug harms explained by David Nutt and Les King.

It is much too early to claim the beginnings of a new, evidence-based approach to drugs policy in the UK. Parliamentary Committee Inquiries are often useful for highlighting different perspectives and approaches. The reports themselves are generally disappointingly conservative and conventional in their recommendations.

But the session yesterday did offer a tantalising glimpse of a new paradigm on drug harms in the making.


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When new sentencing guidelines on burglary were published in January of this year they specified a number of ‘aggravating factors’ that could justify a tougher sentence. One of these was ‘established evidence of community impact’.

How can evidence of community impact be established? In Leeds the evidence will apparently be supplied by the local police force. Under the so-called ‘Leeds uplift’ the police will provide a statement to the court on the community impact with the aim of influencing sentencing in a tougher direction.

Whether the local police, as an interested party in the prosecution, can supply an objective assessment of the ‘community impact’ of any given burglary is something I doubt. But let’s park that question of due process and impartiality.

Let's park also the important principle of sentencing consistency - that similar offences should attract similar penalties regardless of where in the country they are committed - a principle the Leeds uplift undermines.

Let's ask a more basic question. Will it work? Will tougher sentences that come from the successful implementation of the Leeds uplift result in safer, lower crime neighbourhoods?

The short answer is almost certainly no.

The criminal justice process has some deterrent effect, though how great an effect and in what way is difficult, if not impossible, to determine.

When it comes to sentencing it is the certainty of punishment rather than the severity of the sentence that appears to deter. The evidence for this has been usefully summarised by Valerie Wright in a recent paper for the Washington DC-based Sentencing Project.

As she points out:

'Existing evidence does not support any significant public safety benefit of the practice of increasing the severity of sentences by imposing longer prison terms. In fact, research findings imply that increasingly lengthy prison terms are counterproductive.'

Meanwhile, a joint report on burglary in Leeds by the Audit Commission and the police inspectorate emphasised the importance of local targeting and warned against taking ‘a “blanket” approach to dealing with the problem'. A blanket approach like the Leeds uplift perhaps?

So what can work? The joint report also pointed out that burglary victimisation in Leeds is disproportionately concentrated in some areas. As the authors note:

‘In some parts of Leeds, burglary is three times the national average. Burglary is high in deprived areas like Beeston, Harehills, and Armley. Areas with high student populations also suffer, such as Headingley, where burglary was nearly nine times higher than Wetherby in 2008/09. Leeds residents are therefore at much higher risk of being burgled than those in other similar areas. The risks are worse for those living in more deprived areas.’

Your risk of burglary victimisation in Leeds, in other words, is strongly related to where you live, particularly if you live in an area marked by poverty and disadvantage.

This is true of much crime victimisation nationally as well. Some years ago Danny Dorling pointed to the strong relationship between poverty and homicide victimisation. More recently Adam Whitworth has highlighted the link between inequality and five crime types: burglary, robbery, vehicle crime, violence and criminal damage.

What the research evidence points to is a crying need to invest in local community regeneration and effective crime prevention measures. A blanket sentencing approach such as the Leeds uplift has nothing to offer in this respect.

Indeed by placing ever greater demands on punishment it risks leaching resources away from possible community investment into building more prison places.

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Take a walk through one of the royal parks in central London and one is struck by how clean and tidy they are. St James’s Park, Green Park, Hyde Park must be some of the most heavily trafficked public spaces in Western Europe. Yet they remain immaculate in appearance. Scarcely a stray cigarette butt defaces their clipped and ordered expanses.

The contrast with the shabby municipal park round the corner from my house is striking. Stray graffiti adorns some of its walls. Discarded litter that never made it to a bin blows around it on a windy day. Dog mess lies uncollected on its paths and verges, competing for space with the odd beer can. The occasional flasher harasses lone women.

It is this kind of anti-social behaviour that the new White Paper published yesterday – Putting Victims First – seeks to  target.

So how can anti-social behaviour be addressed? How can my local park look more like Green Park?

One obvious difference between the two is that the royal parks benefit from an army of wardens, gardeners and cleaners that would be the envy of a municipal park. It is not asbos, on the spot fines or the threat of prosecution that keeps them clean and tidy. It is sustained investment in an important public space.

Apply that commonplace more broadly and a rather different approach to dealing with anti-social behaviour than is envisaged by the coalition becomes possible.

Dog owners should of course be encouraged to pick up after their pooch.  Despite endless reminders some simply will not do so. Unless we are confident that all culprits can be caught and appropriately sanctioned, it might just be simpler to ensure proper investment in cleaning all our public spaces.

If someone is leaving their front garden in a terrible state and in a way that affects their neighbours’ quality of life, it might just be better for the local council to clean it up themselves. Punitive sanctions targeting individuals might play well with some sections of the tabloid press. They might also be rather less effective, and rather more time-consuming.

In some regards the new White Paper is a step forward. The last Labour government often appeared to see young people mostly as a threat and problem to be managed. By contrast, Putting Victims First celebrates the activity of young people in Sheffield in challenging the nasty ‘mosquito’ devices that have become popular with some businesses.

More than the Labour government the coalition appears to acknowledge that those seen as responsible for anti-social behaviour are often themselves dealing with a host of problems and challenges that require sensitive help and support.

The attempt to simplify the categorisation of anti-social behaviour into three broad headings - environmental problems, public nuisance and personal threat – might help to clarify appropriate responses. Dealing with park litter requires a very different response from supporting someone who is being bullied or harassed by their neighbours.

And yet the White Paper continues with Labour’s error of corralling a random, ad hoc list of problems and gripes under the problematic heading of anti-social behaviour.

And while the Putting Victims First nods in the direction of holistic responses, the iron fist of punitive sanctions and tough crackdowns remains very evident.

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Last week I wrote that a coherent plan of action to control and reduce the prison population in the UK was desperately needed to arrest the alarming drift towards ever higher prison numbers.

So what might such a plan look like? How can we downsize prison?

Here are my suggestions, in the form of five propositions.

Proposition one: a clear, unambiguous and unqualified assertion that high rates of imprisonment are undesirable and a commitment to doing something about it. As one of my colleagues at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies said the other day, we must be clear that societies with high prison populations are unhealthy.

For those taught to believe that prison is a natural answer to the problem of crime, that imprisoning people keeps the rest of us safe, this is perhaps the hardest step to make.

In truth, there is no relationship between imprisonment and crime rates. If there was, the United States, with the highest imprisonment rate in the world would be the safest country in the world. Yet its homicide rate is much higher than the UK’s.

Proposition two: address the structural causes of high imprisonment in poverty and patriarchy. Societies marked by high levels of poverty and inequality tend to have high prison populations. Prisons predominantly hold poor young men who have engaged in characteristically male forms of violence and disorder.

A coherent plan to tackle high prison populations must take both these facts much more seriously than is generally the case.

Proposition three: a sustained investment in institutional alternatives to prison and criminal justice. Far too many people with drug, alcohol and mental health problems, for instance, end up in prison because of the dearth of good quality drug, alcohol and mental health services in the community.

What is needed is sustained investment in a range of high quality social services and a move away from a reliance on the criminal justice process to somehow pick up the pieces.

Proposition four: downsize the criminal justice system across the board. This means fewer police, fewer courts, magistrates and judges, fewer prison and probation officers, fewer public servants of various descriptions processing fewer arrestees, suspects and convictees.

This isn’t an argument in favour of turning a blind eye to crime and disorder. We will only be able to downsize criminal justice if we get the institutional alternatives to prison and criminal justice right. The two go together.

Proposition five: address the problem at the level of the UK, Europe and internationally. All too often discussion of high imprisonment rates replicates the boundaries of our different justice systems. We talk about the prison population of England and Wales, of Scotland, of Northern Ireland. We then assume it is the job of the respective ministers of justice in those jurisdictions to sort out the problem.

In truth, high imprisonment and the bloated criminal justice process behind it are symptoms of a wider social and political malaise. This requires a UK, European and, ultimately, international agenda to resolve.

Reforms internal to the criminal justice process have surprisingly little impact on the underlying prison population. This is why conventional reformist demands - more community sentences for example, or changes to sentencing practice - are missing from my list.

In a short article it’s also only possible to scratch the surface of a much more complex set of challenges. In the coming months I'll be working with colleagues and partners to develop these ideas and rekindle the vision of a downsized prison system.

I'll be posting further updates on Works for Freedom. I'd also love to hear from you if you want to contribute to the development of this vitally important agenda.

Update, May 24, 2012: Given Ken Clarke's comments yesterday in parliament - in which he blamed the tabloid press for the high prison population - it is worth recalling his comments on the political economy of imprisonment in parliament last November:

'The future prison population will depend on all kinds of things beyond the control of the Government, but the prison estate is well placed to meet the demand. Eventually it will all depend on whether we have long and protracted youth unemployment, how far the recession has retracted, and how successful we are with our rehabilitation revolution, workplace reform, skills training, education reform and so on. The Prison Service is there to meet the demand, but we expect the demand to be reasonably stable.'

No mention of the tabloid press there.

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I’ve been tracking the UK prison population since the beginning of the year to get a sense of some of the underlying trends.

My interest here is the UK prison population, not just the prison population of England and Wales, a figure more commonly the focus of London-based policy elites.

I’m also interested in the total population under a prison sentence. This includes those serving a Home Detention Curfew: the latter stages of a prison sentence served under a form of house arrest.

So what’s the current picture? In the four months from the start of January to the beginning of May, the total UK prison population went from 99,516 to 100,540. That’s 1,024 more prisoners now than at the beginning of 2012.

Put another way, the UK prison population is currently growing at the rate of nine prisoners per day. If this trend continues the UK is on course for a prison population of around 102,500 by the close of 2012.

The good news is that there is no inevitability here. As the graph above shows, the growth in the UK prison population has been a lumpy affair. It grew by 39 prisoners a day during January, slowing to 10 prisoners a day during February. During March it fell by 5 prisoners a day and by 10 prisoners a day during April.

The riots probably had something to do with the rise and subsequent fall in the prison population. Those sentenced to custody late last year will have started coming up for release over recent weeks. Against this, news that there remain hundreds of outstanding cases to prosecute suggests that we may not have seen the end of riot sentencing-induced prison growth.

That said, the underlying drivers of the prison population in the UK, as in other countries, are political and economic factors external to the criminal justice process. Tinkering with sentences in themselves will not solve the problem.

The bad news is that there is little sign that policy makers have grasped this basic fact, never mind turned it into anything approaching a coherent plan of action. Indeed the latest government consultation continues to push community sentences as central to addressing prison growth, and this despite the clear evidence that this is unlikely to work.

So what might a coherent plan of action to control, and then reduce, the prison population look like? This is a question that I will return to in my blog next week.

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The Home Secretary Theresa May was admirably frank in a recent parliamentary  exchange, when asked by the Labour MP John Cryer, 'What exactly is the relationship between police numbers and the level of crime?'.

'As we have made absolutely clear, there is no simple relationship between police numbers and the level of crime,' replied the Home Secretary. 'The honourable Gentleman only has to look not only at UK examples,' she continued, 'but across the world to see examples in which police numbers have gone up and crime has gone up, or police numbers have gone down and crime has gone down. There is no simple relationship'.

It was the Home Secretary's ministerial colleague Nick Herbert who, in late 2010, first signalled a shift in the traditional Conservative position on the police. In a BBC interview Mr Herbert said 'I don’t think that anyone and no respectable academic would make a simple link between the increase in the numbers of police officers and what has happened to crime. There is no such link'.

This week Mr Herbert has been at it again, questioning in a speech in Washington DC the 'decades-old mantra that an ever higher rate of incarceration is the best way to fight crime'.

This is hardly new terrain for the Government. Ken Clarke made much the same point in a BBC interview in mid-2010, shortly after taking up the role of Justice Secretary.

But Mr Herbert's intervention is another tantalising sign of an ongoing attempt by the government to rework the political messaging on criminal justice.

In other ways, though, it is very much business as usual. The underlying trend in prison numbers across the UK continues upwards. Despite ongoing talk of a 'rehabilitation revolution', financial, rather than practice, innovation appears to be the order of the day.

When it comes to electoral politics old habits also die hard. Consider the information booklet currently being delivered to millions of homes in the run up to the London Mayor and Assembly elections.

The Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick promises to 'restore the Police Sergeants cut from local Safer Neighbourhood Teams'. Boris Johnson for the Conservatives boasts of the '1,000 more police' he has 'put on the street' and claims he 'found the funding to keep police numbers high'. The Green Party's Jenny Jones wants 'more officers on the beat'. Labour's Ken Livingstone promises to 'crack down on crime by reversing police cuts'.

Evidence-based policy making, it appears, is as far away as ever.

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I have a friend who works for Kids Company. As part of the staff package she receives, as does every member of staff there, a weekly ‘clinical’.

Helping to transform the lives of some of the most damaged and neglected children in the country must be a very rewarding experience. It is also very challenging.

Through a team of 100 psychiatrists, psychotherapists and psychologists Kid’s Company arranges weekly one-to-one sessions with employees.

These clinical sessions offer an opportunity for the Kid’s Company workers to reflect on their achievements, the stresses and strains they are experiencing, or anything else they want to talk about, in a boundaried and supportive environment.

I was reminded of the Kid’s Company system when I spoke recently at a parliamentary event organised by Safe Ground. One of the other speakers was a serving prisoner. He spoke very movingly about the support he had received from some prison officers that had really helped him to turn his life around.

He also argued that all prison officers should get regular ‘clinicals’, to give them a chance to reflect on the challenging jobs they had to do, let off steam in a safe context and celebrate their achievements.

Clinicals for prison officers is such an obvious idea that I have wondered since why I have never heard the suggestion before.

Given the hierarchical nature of the current prison system – where command and control is generally favoured over sharing and support – perhaps it’s just not something that’s talked about.

If so, that is a real shame. Working as a prison officer is very challenging, stressful and difficult. Working in the brutalising environment of the prison must also take its toll. I was recently told by a leading prison researcher that the mortality rate for prison officers once they have retired from the service is worryingly high.

The sheer frustration of the job can also lead some prison officers to abuse the position of power and authority they have over prisoners.

I’m not saying that clinicals and therapy will solve all these problems. Key to addressing the problems of our current prison system is a radical reduction in the numbers we hold in prison, followed, ultimately, by the abolition of the system itself.

But it is good to talk. Clinicals for prison officers are not high on the list of reforms under the current government. They should be.

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