Website URL: www.crimeandjustice.org.uk
The chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick does not mince his words in his latest report on the children's part of Feltham young offenders' institution ('Feltham A'). 'We had serious concerns about the safety of young people held at Feltham A', he writes in his introduction. He continues:
'Many told us they were frightened at the time of the inspection, and that they had little confidence in staff to keep them safe. Gang-related graffiti was endemic. There was an average of almost two fights or assaults every day. Some of these were very serious and involved groups of young people in very violent, pre-meditated attacks on a single individual with a risk of very serious injury resulting.'
His comments to The Independent in advance of the publication of his report were equally forthright:
'It was a very disturbing place. If you were a parent with a child in Feltham you would be right to be terrified. It would be very hard not to join a gang in Feltham.'
Concerns about inmate safety at Feltham are nothing new. The official inquiry into the awful murder of Zahid Mubarek in March 2000 by a fellow inmate found systematic failings in the management and running of the prison. The inquiry chair Mr Justice Keith pointed to a 'bewildering catalogue of shortcomings, both individual and systemic' in his statement at the launch of the inquiry report. Little, it appears, seems to have changed in the intervening years.
Some will see the problems of Feltham as being institution-specific: a question of better, more proactive management of the inmate population; of improved staff training and a more consistent approach. There is much truth in this.
Others will point to a wider cultural shift required across the prison service to embed an approach to prison management informed by a respect for human rights and the dignity of the individual. There is much truth in this too. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies is currently engaged in a pan-European project to investigate and compare prison conditions, share good practice and promote the adoption of the National Preventative Mechanism and respect for human rights in prisons management across the European Union.
Still others will shrug their shoulders. What do you expect if you stick a group of often violent young men together in one place, they might ask. This is a complacent response, but it points to an important truth.
The children in Feltham are there as a result of the British state's resort to imprisonment as a response to criminal convictions. The state owes a duty of care towards those it imprisons as much as it does to the rest of the population. The current problems of Feltham are little short of a dereliction of the state's duty of care towards some 200 or so vulnerable, often disturbed, children.
If the state is incapable of guaranteeing their welfare and safety it has no business locking them up in the first place.
This article first appeared on the Centre for Crime and Justice website
For as long as I can remember there has been a debate about the declaration of criminal convictions to employers. The near 40 year old Rehabilitation of Offenders Act remains the key reference point for policy and practice in this area. Campaign groups have long argued that the Act needs a fundamental overhaul. Ministers and opposition spokespeople have often agreed in private, and sometimes in public, that things need to change. Reform has not generally followed.
Tweaks and adjustments over time have also resulted in changes in practice. Following the Soham murders, for instance, those who had accepted a police caution faced the possiblity of having to declare it for the rest of their lives. Under the Act the cut off point was five years.
Following a ruling by the European Court this could now change. It found in favour of a woman in Northern Ireland who claimed that the ongoing requirement for her to declare a police caution from some years previously was a breach of her rights. The Home Office was reported as 'reviewing this judgement' and considering the implications.
The European Court is currently in the news as a result of the Abu Qatada ruling. Whatever one's feelings about this particular case - and my view remains that the UK should never be in the business of deporting individuals to potential torture or unfair trial - the European Court plays a crucial role in challenging governments to uphold laws and regulations they have signed up to.
Reform, even at glacial pace, is to be welcomed. If the European Court is now forcing the government to introduce long-delayed reform on criminal records, as well as on other issues such as prisoners votes, it is only doing its job.
It has long been known that where children are born and grow up affects the opportunities they have and what they do in their lives. A teenager living in a former industrial city with high levels of adult unemployment will often have different hopes and fears than one who has grown up in a prosperous town in the south east.
Bringing this commonsense understanding to life in an immediate and accessible manner has, however, proved difficult. Much of the data on divergent life chances, when it exists at all, is buried away in obscure statistical publications that all but the specialist would find difficult to understand.
A pioneering online comparison tool launched by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in July this year with the support of the Nominet Trust aims to fill this information gap. Compare Futures allows users to compare a wide range of young people’s life experiences and life chances across England.
Data on Compare Futures is subdivided into twelve different categories relating to education, work and caring responsibilities. By entering a postcode users can see data related to that area and compare it to the national average. Users can also compare one area with another. The results are presented by parliamentary constituency in an accessible and engaging format.
So what does Compare Futures tell us about the variable life experiences of young people in England today? Here are a few examples.
One third of young people growing up near a well-known supermarket in Kensington parliamentary constituency in London are likely to go to a Russell Group university, compared with virtually no young people growing up around a different branch of the same supermarket in Erdington, north east of Birmingham. Ten percent of young people growing up in Erdington are still likely to be studying basic skills qualifications at 18, compared with only one percent in Kensington. Young people in Erdington are more than three times as likely to be unemployed as their peers in Kensington.
Young people in Bradford West constituency are twice as likely as their counterparts in nearby Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency to not be in education employment or training. They are also three times as likely to be unemployed.
Why has the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies set up a website that offers no direct information about crime or the justice system? For one thing we thought the data behind the site was so interesting that it was worth making it available in an accessible form for others to see and use.
Our interests also stretch beyond narrow questions of crime and criminal justice to include social justice, equality and fairness. Young people have no choice about where they are born or grow up. There can be few greater injustices in a young person’s life than the postcode lottery that Compare Futures reveals.
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 nothingOption 1: Community sentences... proposals'
The Hobson's choice the Ministry of Justice offered was 'any reforms you like as long as they're ours'.
Third Sector magazine this week reports on the decision by the Ministry of Justice to 'pause' the criminal justice payment by results pilots. In a letter to stakeholders dated September 27 (downloadable below), Lucy Bogue, the National Offender Management Service Head of Commercial Development, wrote that ministers were 'considering the strategic direction for the use of PbR as part of the overall reform of probation and the wider system. They have therefore decided to pause the remaining competitions... until they have determined the strategic direction they wish to take'.
A pause does not, of course, a cancellation make. In Chris Grayling, the new Justice Secretary, the government also has a minister with enormous experience of payment by results commissioning through his leadership of the controversial Work Programme. The smart money must therefore be on a short-term step backward, the more boldly to spring forward.
Nonetheless, this announcement is another sign that the blistering pace of change set by the coalition government is not itself a guarantee of success. Only a few months ago the then prisons minister Crispin Blunt gave a notably upbeat assessment of the payment by results pilot programme. Announcing a 'pause' suggests things have not been going according to plan.
Rather like the cartoon character who keeps running while in mid-air, ministers might be looking below their feet and realising that the ground is a long way down.
The distressing murder of PC Nicola Hughes and PC Fiona Bone has left many people struggling to make sense of a needless and tragic loss of life. There have been the predictable calls for the police to be routinely armed and for capital punishment for those who kill police officers. While neither of these suggestions is likely to be taken up any time soon, both in different ways offer some form of answer, however flawed, to the question of how public servants can be protected from harm while going about their day-to-day work.
This question is not limited to police officers of course. Nearly 60,000 NHS staff were reportedly assaulted in 2010/11 according to figures compiled by NHS Protect. By comparison, the numbers of reported assaults on police officers in the same year was just under 8,000. Firefighters also face attack while on duty. Research for the Fire Brigades Union found that at least 13 firefighters died or were killed while attending fires between 2003 and 2007.
The violent death of police officers, nonetheless, attract far more attention and soul searching than the death of other public sector workers and this despite their rarity. Between 2004-05 and 2010-11 there were five assaults on police officers in England and Wales that resulted in a fatal injury. The deaths of PCs Hughes and Bone were shocking in part because violent police deaths are so rare. In the United States, by comparison, 56 police officers were 'feloniously killed' in 2010. Even adjusting for the United States' larger population, this is still a much higher rate of death.
The vast majority of police officers leave the profession as a result of resignation or retirement, not death. The job of a police officer remains, however, a difficult and stressful one. Tom Winsor's review of the remuneration and conditions of police in England and Wales observes that 'not only is police work in general relatively stressful, but individuals within the police service face particular stresses'. The effects of stress are various including, in some cases, suicide. Between 2009 and 2011 some 55 police officers in England and Wales committed suicide.
A serious strategy to tackle early mortality among the police would focus on tackling stress and anxiety in the workplace, not tooling up officers or executing those who kill them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.