Boris Johnson has announced a much-needed new plan to tackle crime but, sadly, it’s another package of measures which falls short of getting to the root of the problem. Even the marketing of the latest proposals was pathetic, with the PM focusing on the classic political trope of getting “tough on crime”, claiming “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs” of offenders would be visible to the public, paying for their crimes.
This is what he said: “If you are guilty of anti-social behaviour and you are sentenced to unpaid work, as many people are, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society.” An eye-catching headline, yes, but how will wearing a hi-vis jackets help them to rehabilitate?
Typically, there is nothing original or imaginative among the new policy ideas which are here:
· Permanently relaxing conditions on the use of section 60 stop-and-search powers.
· Expanding the use of electronic monitoring for thieves upon release from prison.
· Making unpaid work “more visible” by getting offenders to clean streets and open spaces.
· Trialling the use of alcohol tags – which detect alcohol in the sweat of offenders guilty of drink-fuelled crime – on prison leavers in Wales.
Indeed, the “chain gang” proposal looks pitifully archaic when fraud and digital crime now accounts for a third of offences. More importantly, there is the significant matter of funding across the board.
The criminal justice system suffered massive cuts in the Conservatives’ austerity drive, including the police, the CPS and drug treatment and rehabilitation services. Delays in the courts are at a record high and 295 courts in England and Wales have been closed. It’s not credible to argue that this has had no negative impact, but there is no indication that the damage will be undone.
There is a dearth of ideas when it comes to rehabilitation, which is short-sighted and suggests this is just more sloganistic headline grabbing. Although there is some money to be allocated to measures such as drug treatment and violence reduction units, it is far from enough.
The truth is, to be tough on crime you really do have to be tough on the causes of crime, from poverty, poor education, and lack of opportunity to addiction and mental health issues.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Back in 2012 I volunteered for a social care charity which targeted the reduction of reoffending rates within its area of operation. Re-offenders were referred to the organisation for assessment of their social needs which led to referrals to help them with issues such as addiction, employment, mental and/or physical health, housing and beyond. These interventions were designed to help people break the cycle of re-offending.
After a year of voluntary work that I hoped would lead to a career, the organisation was victim of steep and sweeping austerity cuts across the third sector. There has never been a better example of false economy than cutting funding to organisations rehabilitating long term reoffenders. Ultimately, it simply leads to a great overall financial and social cost in paying to imprison people and abandoning people to addiction, homelessness and other social ills that lead people into a life of crime.
No crime reduction strategy is going to be successful without integrating innovative intervention programmes into the policy approach. It will take money and it means thinking outside of the box. Scotland and England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe. The prison population has risen by 74 per cent in the last 30 years — and it is currently projected to rise by a further 20,000 people by 2026. Clearly, the current approach is not working.
In England and Wales, we overuse prison for petty and persistent crime, and we do not allocate adequate resources to rehabilitation, which is the most effective way of reducing reoffending rates. Over 40,000 people were sent to prison to serve a sentence in 2020. The majority, 63 per cent, had committed a non-violent offence and 33 per cent weresentenced to serve six months or less.
Nearly two thirds (63 per cent) of those who receive a prison sentence of less than 12 months reoffend within a year. Overall, nearly half of adult inmates (48 per cent) are reconvicted of another offence within one year of release. Too many people are being released from prison only to return there shortly after. I’m afraid chain gangs and stop and search are not going to change this dire situation.
Short prison sentences disrupt the lives of the convicted, but there is no time to address their long-term issues in such short periods. Some people believe the answer must therefore be longer sentences, but without effective rehabilitative measures and adequate funding in place they would not be effective either.
In any case, HM Prisons and Probation Service has experienced significant cuts to its budget in recent years. Between 2010–11 and 2014–15 its budget reduced by around 20 per cent, and despite some increases its budget remains 13 per cent lower in real terms than in 2010–11. The money and capacity simply is not there.
The evidence indicates the desperate need for an approach that considers the medium to long term effect results of crime reduction policies. Punishment and deterrence are key pillars of the criminal justice system, but reducing crime is a hugely difficult and complex conundrum and we must think beyond them if we are to move people away from crime.
For example, only 10 per cent of people are in employment six weeks after leaving prison. After a year, the figure rises to a shockingly low 17 per cent. Only half of people released from prison between March 2019–20 had settled accommodation on release while 17 per cent were homeless or sleeping rough.
Consider the situation of these people and remember there are individual human beings behind these statistics and consider what you might do in their situations. Slipping back into crime is far easier than overcoming these obstacles with little or no support.
Then comes the point at which our ailing criminal justice system meets our inadequate mental health provision. Some 71 per cent of women and 47 per cent of men in prison reported that they had mental health issues. A study of 469 male and female prisoners found that 42 per cent of participants had been previously diagnosed with a mental illness yet only around a quarter of the sample reported current contact with prison mental health services.
Furthermore, 34 per cent of people assessed in prison in 2017–18 reported that they had a learning disability or difficulty. Although there has been an improvement in this area in recent years, with more than half of prisons inspected in 2016–17 actively identifying and supporting prisoners with learning disabilities, clearly there is more room to improve and further support would be fruitful.
A pivot to reducing crime is welcome, but a fresh approach is needed. Without an overarching strategy that includes addressing the social ills that trap people in a cycle of reoffending, no crime reduction plan can succeed. Reducing crime requires a multi-layered policy approach and it cannot be done on the cheap.