Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP today challenged the justice policy that has been followed by the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and now the Coalition Government since the mid 1990s. Since these policies were adopted crime has gone down by over half so this speech questioning them was a significant development.
The Deputy Prime Minister wants fewer offenders to be sent to jail. He said that “there are more than 85,000 people in prison in England and Wales today. In 1994, there were fewer than 49,000. I don’t believe there are 36,000 more dangerous people now than then. We have not become a more vicious or sinister society.” The Deputy Prime Minister does say that the ‘serious criminal’ will continue to go to jail but identifies three main groups that he appears to view as non/less serious criminals, they are; female offenders, drug users and the mentally ill. He attacked other politicians for sloganizing. They were not concentrating on what works and the evidence. So what is the evidence?
The evidence shows that 1994 is an odd year for the Deputy Prime Minister to choose as the year the Criminal Justice System got it right. Crime was increasing in 1994 and crime peaked in England and Wales in 1995 at 19 million crimes. In response, both the Labour and the Conservative Parties came to agree that a bad childhood or a difficult home environment is not an excuse for inflicting pain and misery on other people. Criminals were sentenced to prison more often, were kept in jail for longer and parole conditions were enforced more. These policy changes caused the prison population to increase. This is one of the reasons the crime rate has dropped. More criminals are now in jail and are unable to commit further crimes against the broader community. Labour MPs, many from poorer areas, were vital in achieving this change. They saw that criminals made their constituents lives a misery. Prison offered the community some respite.
Female offenders are often judged as less serious offenders because they commit less violent offences. Consequently there are only 4000 female offenders in prison compared to over 80,000 men. The offences they commit are more likely to be property offences such as fraud and theft/handling of stolen goods but property crime is a serious crime. It accounts for 72% of all police recorded offences and 81% of all incidents measured by the Crime Survey for England and Wales. If property crime is not serious then the majority of crime is not serious – this can’t be the right approach. As the Broken Windows thesis powerfully suggests – property crime is a symbol of societal breakdown. Clamping down on these types of lower order offences is a powerful way of reducing overall crime.
We must also consider the effects of treating female criminals differently. It will not help vulnerable women to send a message to gang leaders that they should recruit female members to steal for them because female offenders will get a lesser sentence. Victims of sophisticated fraud operations are no less deserving of justice because the individual that conned them was a woman. Some fraud cases result in victims losing their life savings. Independent stores can be driven out of business by the cumulative effects of the actions of individual shoplifters who steal a high volume of low value items. So non violent offenders still commit serious crimes and society needs to respond appropriately.
The Deputy Prime Minister poses a horrific image of a mother crying in her cell. In reality, Courts are reluctant to separate a mother from her child. Being a primary carer is already one of the grounds of mitigation when sentencing. This is rarely used in the case of male offenders. Children are only separated from their mothers when their mothers commit a crime serious enough to warrant a prison sentence. There is an easy way to avoid a jail sentence – do not commit a crime.
Research by the Centre for Crime Prevention reveals that female offenders are far less likely to be given a prison sentence for repeat offending. Peter Cuthbertson, Director of the Centre for Crime Prevention found that “male offenders with one or two previous convictions or cautions are more than twice as likely as women criminals to go to prison.” This suggests that the justice system already accounts for the fact that women tend to commit different kinds of offences by imprisoning less of them.
The Deputy Prime Minister identifies drug users as a group that could be imprisoned less. He says “A third of male and two thirds of female prisoners admitted to committing their crimes to get money to buy drugs.” He does not mention that drug users choose to take drugs. They know that these drugs are illegal when they take them. Drug users commit a disproportionate amount of crime in England and Wales. A review commissioned by the Home Office in 2000 found that the average criminal committed 140 offences per year. The average drug offender committed 257 offences per year. An evidence based policy might suggest the need for longer prison sentences for drug offences and not shorter sentences.
It is also not surprising that offenders are less likely to have achieved academic qualifications and more likely to take drugs. Some people think crime is a short cut to the things other people work hard for such as wealth and respect. Criminals are not victims, criminals create victims. In the case of offenders with mental health problems the Deputy Prime Minister is right to call for better health services for this group. However, the mental health problems he cites include anxiety and depression and many individuals experience these problems but don’t commit crimes so the link between the two is not clear. He mentions psychosis as being a problem for a quarter of offenders but does not acknowledge the link with drug use which his policy of decriminalising possession may actually increase.
If the Deputy Prime Minister achieved his objective to reduce the prison population to the level of the mid 1990’s there is little evidence that this smaller prison population would help rehabilitate the fewer offenders in jail. The rate of reconviction was not lower when the prison population was markedly lower. 60 per cent of adult offenders given sentences up to 12 months were reconvicted within two years of release in 1996. 57.9% of offenders sentenced to less than 12 months in jail now reoffend.
Prison could be better at rehabilitating people but that is not its only purpose. Prison is there to get justice for the victims, to prevent there being more victims and to send a message to offenders that there is a limit to societies indulgence of their criminality. Victims are mentioned only once in the Deputy Prime Ministers speech. We need evidence that a reduction in the prison population will not cause a crime wave. Otherwise it is a reckless step to allow more proven criminals to remain at large in the community.