Published 1 November 2018
If rising serious violence has been the signature crime and justice issue in 2018, what will happen in 2019? And how should policing respond? And with a Spending Review set to redraw the financial envelope (helpfully or otherwise) for the next few years, what should we be looking out for? We got our collective brains together to discuss and this is our verdict.
What will happen to crime?
The defining crime trend of 2018 has been the increase in police recorded violence, not just in London but in towns and cities across England and Wales.
Provincial and rural forces such as Norfolk and Hertfordshire have recorded some of the biggest rises in recorded knife crime since 2011, with county lines drug operations and the violent rivalry blamed.
Though the link between violence and drugs is well documented, police cuts and drill music have been floated by our political classes as suspects for the rise in knife crime and homicide. But with opiate deaths rising, global cocaine production at a record high, prosecutions for drugs offences falling and mounting concern about legal highs, the evidence of a link with drug markets is becoming more and more compelling. As drug-related crime and its effects become more visible through 2019, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) and Chief Constables are likely to come under increasing pressure to show they have plans to get on top of it. At the other end of the harm scale, anti-social behaviour (ASB) has largely disappeared from the crime figures. Is this because there is genuinely less of it about? Or is this because the public has given up reporting ASB to a police service they feel (or have been told repeatedly) does not have time to deal with it? If so, it raises big questions about police legitimacy in the future.
Where there's fear, there's votes
Once, it was the over 65s who were most worried about crime - now it’s those aged 45-54 (the group most likely to be parents of teenagers). Fear of crime among young people themselves, particularly in the big cities is increasing too. And polling shows crime is now the third biggest issue of public concern, behind Brexit and the NHS. Yet crime levels alone cannot explain this. For example, London has suffered 130 homicides in 2018 compared to 220 in 2003 - yet concern about crime is at a seven year high (see below figure).
Could viral videos of brazen moped gangs, youths brandishing knives and police officers being assaulted be partly behind this increase in public fear? Irrespective, public concern generates political interest and so the debate around police cuts and other issues is likely to intensify, particularly once the countdown begins to PCC elections in May 2020.
What price policing
The financial commitment to the NHS confirmed in this Autumn’s Budget means few in policing have hopes for a generous Spending Review in March. It is true that the Home Office has agreed to plug the hole in forces’ pensions and allow PCCs the options of increasing the council tax precept. Yet the suspicion must be that 2019 is the year the cracks open up in frontline policing.
Crest’s own research suggests strongly that some forces are unlikely to have the resources they need to meet demand, including non-crime demand such as mental health call outs. A recent HMIC thematic inspection recognised this growing burden and blamed inadequate healthcare provision for it. At the same time, increased reporting of sexual offences and domestic abuse has given policing a more complex caseload. Overall detection rates are now at an historic low of 9% with some Chief Constables openly admitting their officers are overstretched. The public, however, is unwilling to lower its expectations. Our polling suggests it views many non-crime incidents - let alone lower harm offences - as core policing business. Without more resources, chiefs will have to make ever harder choices about where to allocate their resources. A force can choose to no longer attend or investigate shoplifting. But at what cost to its legitimacy?
Breaking the cycle?
The future for the broader criminal justice system is no less bleak. As social dysfunction grows, manifested in increasing homelessness, poverty and mental health problems, we anticipate a renewed focus on vulnerability.
The challenge facing courts, probation and other agencies is how to address the complex needs of increasingly vulnerable offenders with fewer resources and partners who have their own problems to solve. Crest has long advocated further devolution as a solution because pooling budgets at a local level will allow shared, innovative and preventative approaches. We will publish new research in early 2019 into how greater devolution could help to address the vulnerabilities and behaviours of women offenders. Devolution will be a theme in a number of regions with PCCs keen to show Whitehall that they can take on more responsibilities and improve outcomes, for example around youth justice.
Reforming the reforms?
Probation reform more broadly will be a headline event as the sector seeks to chart a viable course out of the Transforming Revolution (TR) era. In Wales, the devolved government will make the case to take over probation contracts from the Ministry of Justice and consolidate them into a ‘national’ approach. In England, we know which areas are likely to expand to create larger economies of scale but not yet which of the current community rehabilitation companies will bid and secure the new contracts. A key point to look out for will be how these new contracts are incentivised in the future after widespread criticism of the TR model. More immediately there are concerns that unless community rehabilitation companies get better at meeting ex-offenders’ needs, for example around housing and substance abuse, reoffending rates may start to increase.
Has the prisons crisis gone away?
Prisons have been relatively quiet in recent months but it is too soon to think the fundamental problems of high levels of violence, legal (and illegal) highs and a demoralised service have been fixed. Rory Stewart’s pledge to quit as Prisons Minister by 17 August 2019 if violence in jails does not decline will be inked into the home affairs journalists’ calendars. Despite warm words from ministers and small declines in prisoner numbers, the step change in sentencing policy - to reduce the use of short term sentences - has not yet materialised. In our view, it is unlikely to without a significant shift in the provision of more robust community alternatives that can rebuild the confidence of sentencers.
Politics, money and Brexit
Despite growing public concern about crime, especially serious violence, Brexit will inevitably dominate until late Spring - perhaps much longer. As a result, the legislative calendar for Parliament will remain largely empty, though the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill is (apparently) imminent and will almost certainly garner some cross-party support. The absence of serious Westminster debate on criminal justice may create space for a trio of new commissioners - for Victims of Crime, for Anti Slavery and for Domestic Abuse - to strike out and set clear agendas.
2019 will also be the year in which the current political paralysis is resolved, one way or another. But will it be the year in which solutions to intractable problems, such as those facing criminal justice, become reflected in national policy debate?