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The gathering storm; crime figures show why the criminal justice system is in such trouble

Harvey Redgrave, Chief Executive Officer

Thursday 25 January 2018

Recent crime statistics have confirmed what we have known for some time: that whilst there are fewer offenders being charged and sentenced than in the past, the harmfulness of their offending is more likely to be worse.

Recorded violence, sexual offences, knife crime and gun crime have all been going up for at least three years. In 2010, these crimes represented just under a fifth (18%) of total recorded crime. Today they represent just under a third (31%).

In some areas, these crimes have risen dramatically. For example, in Northumbria and Durham, violence against the person has increased respectively by 68% and 70% over the last three years.

Why is this happening? There are two possible explanations. The first is that the police – who act as the ‘gateway’ into the criminal justice system – are making different choices about which crimes they investigate, effectively focusing on the most serious and prolific offenders. Whether or not this is the result of austerity (with police chiefs forced to prioritise increasingly scarce resources on the most harmful crimes), changing incentives (with many forces having been instructed by PCCs to ditch volume targets) or changing public expectations (with the police encouraged to proactively unearth ‘hidden’ crimes, such as child abuse) is not yet clear.

The second explanation is that these changes reflect a genuine underlying shift in the nature of crime. For example, whilst the ONS are at pains to stress that much of the increases in recorded violence and sexual offences can be attributed to better reporting and recording by the police, they believe increases in knife crime and gun crime reflect real increases. Knife crime, in particular, is not only more prevalent, but more serious with victims more likely to suffer serious wounding.

In truth, the answer probably lies somewhere in between. In any case, the implications of these changes for our criminal justice system are profound.

The more serious the offence, the longer it takes to bring an offender to justice and the more it costs. For example, a rape case will take the police longer to investigate and charge; it will take the court longer to reach a verdict and sentence; and it will mean that the offender is more likely to be sent to prison for a prolonged period of time.

The Home Office estimate that the fiscal cost of processing a rape case is around six times as expensive as for an average offence. So it is easy to see why, in the context of austerity, the system is in crisis.

In recent years, two main arguments have been put forward for how we ease the pressure on our justice system. The first posits that the answer lies in sentencing reform. Yet our analysis of the prison population for the Hadley Trust (which we will shortly publish) shows that whilst sentence inflation has indeed driven up prison numbers, it has primarily affected sexual offences and robbery, rather than offences across the board. And as the Worboys case has illustrated only too clearly, reversing inflation for these offences is unlikely to be politically palatable.

The second argument is that we need to spend more money on the police, so that there is a more effective deterrent against serious violence. Yet whilst there are many reasons to support greater funding of the police, the evidence suggests it is unlikely, by itself, to make much of a dent in the level of recorded serious violence. Indeed an increase in the number of police officers might actually push up recorded serious violence, in the short-term, since it would in theory lead to the uncovering of more crimes. (It is noteworthy that none of the major political parties appear to be calling for more spending on prisons or probation).

The truth is that if we are serious about reducing serious violence and taking the pressure off our justice system, most of the long-term solutions lie outside of the criminal justice system. Parenting interventions targeted at the most chaotic families; a step-change in the quality of support to children in care; better access to drug treatment; and continuity of education provision between prison and in the community. One of the reasons Crest are passionate about justice devolution is the opportunity it affords PCCs and Metropolitan Mayors to pool budgets and bring these services together in a single place, rather than passing offenders from one agency to the next. Expect more from us on this – and criminal justice reform in general – in coming weeks.

Today’s statistics are not just bad news politically for the government, they are a warning of serious trouble brewing. Our criminal justice system is on its knees at just the point crime is becoming more challenging. Further tinkering will not suffice. Urgent reform is required.


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