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Why we need a different discussion about crime

Friday 22 January 2016

Yesterday the latest set of crime figures were published, triggering a well established and familiar process.

First out of the traps are the Home Office, publishing a press release welcoming the figures and heralding the success of the government’s programme of ‘police reform’/ ‘investment’ [delete as appropriate].

Soon afterwards follows Her Majesty’s opposition (who to be fair, have had 24 hours’ less time to prepare for the figures than the government). This takes the form of a standard quote from the Shadow Policing Minister focussing on a particularly worrying aspect of the figures – yesterday it was the rise in recorded violence – whilst attacking the government for slashing the police budget/ being soft on crime [delete as appropriate].

Politicians from both sides are put in front of the cameras to record a clip for the news bulletins with the lines to take, leaving the journalists to prepare the standard narrative frame for the next day’s newspapers.

Many of those involved in the process would privately prefer to have a more interesting, informed and nuanced conversation about crime, but nobody feels able to change things – it is as though the structure of our political and media establishments do not allow it.

Meanwhile the public shrug their shoulders and move on.

Leave the stale soundbites and focus on legitimate debate


Some argue that the answer is to de-politicise crime; turning it into a less emotive, more technocratic debate about ‘what works’. But that can never be a real solution. The way we perceive, think about and experience crime is part of the fabric of our everyday life, whether we like it or not – it is not realistic to think that such matters can simply be removed from the political arena.

More importantly, there are substantive issues of legitimate public concern that deserve to be the subject of political debate. Here are just a few:

- to what extent does the 36 per cent rise in recorded sexual offences reflect (a) a genuine rise in crime; (b) greater willingness on the part of victims to come forwards, or; (c) an increase in police targeted activity?

- what explains the discrepancy in violence trends, between the crime survey (which shows violence falling) and recorded crime (which shows it increasing)?

- given the rise in complex (and more costly) crimes, such as sexual offences and fraud, where should police resources be best allocated? Is it time to switch the focus from neighbourhood policing to more specialist capabilities, such as investigation and detection?

- if you are a victim of crime, particularly a serious offence, who do you hold responsible for system-wide failures, such as the chronically inefficient process for processing and completing cases? (Less than a fifth of sexual offences result in someone being charged or cautioned; the average number of days taken to process a sexual offence case now stands at a whopping 553 days)

- does the 9 per cent rise in knife crime and the first rise in gun crime for 7 years – mostly concentrated in London – reflect a rise in gang-related activity? What role could non-policing agencies, such as schools and hospitals, be playing in preventing such crimes? Is information being shared routinely enough between public services?

Crime will always be the subject of intense political debate – rightly so. But it needn’t be reduced to stale soundbites. The United States can be a source of inspiration here, where, after many decades of being reliably ‘tough on crime’, Republicans are now at the forefront of a growing movement for criminal justice reform: pursuing an agenda based on prevention, diversion from custody and justice reinvestment, rather than dogma. There is no reason why we cannot do the same here in the UK.


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