Monday, 21 December 2015

There are no good reasons for thinking prison is overused

Peter Cuthbertson is the Director of the Centre for Crime Prevention.

Writing for ConservativeHome last week, Nadhim Zahawi MP made some solid points.

While the prison budget is a tiny part of overall government spending, Zahawi is right that the actual cost per inmate is too high. The government is thankfully already pursuing ways to reduce this cost by replacing the older, smaller prisons. Some large private prisons have a cost per inmate around two thirds cheaper than the average.

Likewise, few would disagree that rehabilitation within prisons is a worthwhile objective. Indeed, stiff prison sentences themselves have a role to play in rehabilitation – or at least frightening criminals away from crime. As one policeman puts it:

“If you have someone in custody who is facing a proper sentence, they change. Suddenly, they want to talk to you and grass their mates up, suddenly they want a lawyer, suddenly they need consultations for hours, suddenly they are in tears and want to see their family, suddenly they are asking their missus to bring in their favourite pictures of the kids. They are calling you Sir and smoking 20 fags an hour. When you have the same men in for a summary-only offence (only triable before the magistrates, with no custodial sentences beyond six months and terms that long an extreme rarity), they’re sneering and swaggering and hoping the police officers and their families all die of cancer.”

The data bears this out. It’s not just that prison protects the public for the duration of the sentence. The longer the prison sentence, the lower the reoffending rate after release, too. This is quite starting given that stiffer sentences go to more serious offenders.

But Zahawi should be cautious about any suggestion that this government is overseeing overly harsh sentencing, or that large numbers of people who are no great risk to public safety go to prison. Nothing could be further from the truth.

He writes that: "When our house is burgled and we see the culprit get three years instead of the 50 that we would have seen them get for violating our home, it leaves us fuming."

This implies that burglars usually get three years. But in fact, fully half of all those convicted or cautioned for burglary got a non-custodial sentence in 2014. Of the other half, only 13.4% got a prison sentence of three years or more. Burglars were actually more likely to get a caution (1,418 cases) than a prison sentence of three years or more (1,289 cases)!

Zahawi goes on to write that: "[M]ost people in prison in the UK are not there for the heinous acts that inspire lurid headlines. Every three months, around 10,000 people are sent to prison on short sentences of less than 12 months."

But just because someone gets a prison sentence of less than 12 months hardly means they are no real threat to public safety. It may just imply that prison sentences are too short.

The 2014 data is clear. Of all those in prison, only 8.4% were there for a first offence and that includes people inside for very serious first offences. 49.7% of all prisoners had committed at least 15 previous offences. Is that because everyone with 15 previous offences goes to prison? No. In fact, more than 61% of people who appeared before the courts with 15 previous convictions or cautions got a non-custodial sentence.

If you find these figures shocking and counter-intuitive, you aren’t alone. There are lots of people who innocently ask: "Can't we reserve prison for serious, repeat offenders and give the minor and first time offenders a second chance before we bang them up?". But as Nick Herbert MP likes to put it, the only factually accurate response to this is: "That's exactly what already happens".

Most people are shocked when they see the data on how many serious offences the typical criminal needs to commit before they first end up in prison. By the time someone goes to prison for the first time, they tend to have a string of previous convictions and cautions, community sentences and fines and so on.

Even people convicted of multiple serious offences find the courts bend over backwards to avoid sending them to prison. In a single twelve month period, there were over 29,000 cases of criminals avoiding prison despite 25 or more previous convictions.

The fallacy that sentencing is overly harsh doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. Ever since Michael Howard began to drive down crime rates by locking up more and more serious, repeat offenders, very well-funded anti-prison lobby groups and rehabilitation charities have waged war on this method of protecting the public. For decades they have beavered away, painting a false picture of a country obsessed with banging up largely harmless people. If the very rare harsh sentence helps their case, they milk it for all it is worth, pretending it is typical.

But prisons are almost empty of first time, minor offenders. They are full of tens of thousands of serious, repeat offenders.

Like Zahawi, I think we should continue to experiment with different ways to rehabilitate these serious, repeat offenders once they are in prison. But the system already makes almost endless efforts at rehabilitation, both inside and outside of prison. If some choose to go on committing lots of crimes, it isn't for want of effort to rehabilitate them.

The question is really what happens to those who continue to be a threat to the public. If you want to cut prison numbers in any noticeable way, there just aren't enough first time or minor offenders to do it. So you must turn immediately to the serious, repeat offenders. But given that only 39% of people with 15 or more prior convictions go to prison as it is, how much further can we realistically go? Only 20% of them going to prison? 10%?

So yes, we can all hope for and work towards a mass rehabilitation revolution.

But we have no good reason for thinking prison is overused.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

High-risk offenders who are bailed attack again

Today's Sunday People reports on the 21 convicted sex offenders who have committed new sex offences while bailed.

Peter from the Centre for Crime Prevention is quoted arguing that “These horrific cases show the ­dangers of a ­halfway house approach for dangerous criminals.”

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Cost cutting plans to slash prison sentences would be a dereliction of duty

David Spencer, Research Director

It is understandable that the number one priority of this Government is getting the country’s economy back on track.

Big savings are to be made in this Parliament, and the Ministry of Justice must be part of this process, but the reports over the weekend that the new Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove MP, is planning to do this by cutting jail sentences is worrying.

Jail is a punishment given to people who are convicted of only the most serious crimes. Already, the seriousness and number of offences a criminal has to commit before being sent to prison is worryingly high. In addition, most prisoners will only serve half of the sentence they have been given by the courts simply in order to keep down costs and the number of people behind bars.

The system as it stands frustrates police efforts to tackle career criminals, who still make up the bulk of their workload, as well as being a slap in the face to the innocent victims of their offences. Making sentences even softer would only serve to make the system even less effective, and stretch police resources all the more.

There are plenty of ways that the Ministry of Justice can save money. Offering rehabilitation programmes only to those criminals who are assessed as having a genuine interest in reforming their behaviour could make big savings.

Cutting the number of expensive creature comforts offered to inmates would release funds whilst also moving the prison back towards being the deterrent it was always intended to be.

Meanwhile opening up the prison sector to more private investment would save public sector money whilst allowing our prison system to have both the capacity and modern infrastructure it so badly needs.

Keeping prisoners behind bars is not cheap, but it is still less expensive than having the police constantly having to chase the same individuals again and again. Government savings should be looked at as a whole, rather than through arbitrary departmental targets. When the prison service does its job properly, other areas of Government such as the Home Office policing budget, the NHS budget and the MOJ's court budgets should all see savings too.

But there is a more fundamental reason why these plans should be viewed as non-starters. It is the job of a Government to protect the people it represents, be it from foreign aggressors, terrorists, or domestic criminals. Failure to do so would be a dereliction of this duty.

Already there are a number of departments which have their budgets ring-fenced. Why is the International Development more important than the safety and security of the British people?

Crime is a big issue at the ballot box and any failure to deliver an effective justice system risks damaging the reputation of the current administration in the eyes of voters.

Friday, 3 October 2014

1,000 under 18s a year are convicted of drink driving

Today's Daily Express reveals that 1,000 under 18s each year are convicted of drink driving. More than a quarter are under the legal driving age of 17.

Peter Cuthbertson, director of the Centre for Crime Prevention, told the Daily Express:
"It's extremely serious that so many young criminals are driving drunk. The courts should reflect this in passing very stringent sentences. Soft sentencing for juvenile criminals doesn't work."

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Centre for Crime Prevention slams Ford Open Prison

In response to news that Ford Open Prison has just had its 82 inmate abscond, Peter Cuthbertson of the Centre for Crime Prevention told the Daily Mail:
"Open prisons in general and HMP Ford in particular have a terrible record for prisoner escapes. Eighty-two separate cases is an appalling figure.
"It is dangerous to rely on prisons that have such a bad record of escapes, and it’s high time to stop the overuse of open prisons."

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

What the official crime figures are missing

Today's Daily Mail covers the important story about how as many as 3,800,000 million bank and credit card frauds are going uncounted in the Crime Survey for England and Wales. Peter from the Centre for Crime Prevention is quoted arguing:
"Public confidence in crime figures is vital and requires recording the full range of crimes consistently. It is a mockery for a reputable crime survey to fail to count almost one in three offences."
There appears to be a risk of the Crime Survey only counting yesterday's crimes, failing to keep up with types of offences so many criminals are now committing. The people they prey on suffer just like any other victims of crime, and there is no excuse for failing to record what happened.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Centre for Crime Prevention slams the overuse of cautions

In response to the news that 15,000 have been cautioned in the last years for offences that usually result in prison - including 90 for rape - Peter from the Centre for Crime Prevention argued:
"A caution is never acceptable for crimes like rape or robbery. 
"There is a real problem of police cautioning serious offenders just so their figures show the crime was dealt with, even if it was actually dealt with in a ridiculously trivial way. Police need to tackle this culture immediately."
David Green of Civitas also agrees in the story:
"The overuse of cautions is putting the public at very great risk."
"This is appalling. The police and prosecutors like them because they involve very little work. You just get someone to admit it and you’ve got a detection." 
‘But they leave the public unprotected because you have a violent offender who is not in prison. If a robber is in jail he won’t be threatening you with a knife in the street telling you to hand over your money."

Monday, 11 August 2014

Centre for Crime Prevention on foreign criminals and open prisons

Peter Cuthbertson of the Centre for Crime Prevention was quoted in two crime stories today.

He told the Daily Mail, in response to news of a rapidly rising number of foreign criminals, including murderers, not being deported, that foreign overseas criminals would be "right to think coming here is a no-brainer given the … feebleness of our sentencing".

In response to news on the overuse of open prisons, meaning almost 1,000 criminals were returned to closed conditions after attempting escape or otherwise breaching the rules, he told the Daily Express:
“With so many hardened criminals breaking the rules of open prisons, or simply escaping, it is time to scale back radically the use of open prisons.”

Monday, 12 May 2014

11,670 serious offenders walked free from court with a suspended sentence - despite more than 10 previous convictions

Research from the Centre for Crime Prevention reveals an astonishing number of serious and repeat offenders’ prison sentences are being suspended by the courts.

Suspended sentences are now handed out for tens of thousands of violent, property and sexual offences each year, ranging from spitting at people to manslaughter. They include throwing fireworks into a crowd, theft, molesting children, assault, taking a bomb into a hotel running a brothel, benefit fraud, burglary, faking one's death, strangling a cat and sex with a dog. One judge claims they are being used “A bit like confetti”.

11,670 serious offenders had their prison sentence suspended in 2012/13 despite more than 10 previous convictions or cautions. 9,052 serious offenders had their prison sentence suspended in 2012/13 despite 15 or more previous conviction or cautions.

They are also failing to stop reoffending. Data from Freedom of Information requests reveals there were 110,745 cases of criminals sentenced last year despite one or more previous suspended sentences. There were 215 examples of criminals being found guilty despite 10 or more suspended sentences.

Almost one in three (31%) prison sentences were suspended in 2012 – up from 2% a decade ago.

Victoria, Australia is currently in the process of abolishing failing suspended sentences. In light of similar failings here, England and Wales should do the same.


Peter Cuthbertson, author of the report and Director of the Centre for Crime Prevention, said:

“Thugs and sex offenders who think they are finally going to prison are overjoyed when find out that the prison sentence has been suspended. It makes a mockery of justice for victims and puts the public at great risk. These figures show that criminals given suspended sentences go on to commit hundreds of thousands of crimes. Suspended sentences should be abolished.”

The key findings of the report are:
  • There were 11,670 cases of serious offenders having their prison sentence suspended in 2012/13 despite more than 10 previous convictions or cautions.
  • There were 9,052 cases of serious offenders having their prison sentence suspended in 2012/13 despite 15 or more previous conviction or cautions.
  • In 2002, 2,519 prison sentences (2% of all prison sentences) were suspended. This rose to 44,644 (31% of all prison sentences) by 2012.
    • For violence against the person, the figure rose 14-fold from 504 in 2002 to 7,288 in 2012 (35% of all prison sentences for these violent offenders)
    • For sex offenders the figure rose 8-fold from 58 to 488 (1 in 8 of all prison sentences for sex offenders)
    • For burglars and other serious property offenders the figure rose 18-fold from 778 to 14,060.
  • Almost half (45%) of prison sentences for fraud were fully suspended.
  • 110,745 (22%) of the 510,065 sentences passed by courts in 2012/13 were to criminals who had previously had at least one prison sentence suspended. (There were 66,443 individual offenders in this category, some of which were sentenced more than once in this year.)
    • 48,108 were given to those with 2 or more previous suspended sentences;
    • 22,776 were given to those with 3 or more;
    • 5,678 were given to those with 5 or more;
       ​​
    • 215 were given to those with 10 or more; and
    • 17 were given to those with 15 or more
  • 34,733 (35%) of the 100,335 prison sentences handed down in 2012/13 were given to criminals who had previously had at least one prison sentence suspended.
    • 16,906 prison sentences were given to those who had previously been given 2 or more suspended sentences (10,865 individual offenders);
    • 8,444 to those previously given 3 or more;
    • 2,303 to those previously given 5 or more;
    • 650 to those previously given 7 or more; and
    • 96 to those previously given 10 or more
  • Those given suspended sentences between 2007 and 2011 have already reoffended 202,845 times.
  • Hertfordshire saw an 82-fold increase in the number of criminals whose prison sentence were suspended – from 10 (1 in 2,102) to 821 (1 in 28). The areas with the greatest increases were:
No. in 2002
1 in …
No. in 2012
1 in …
Increase (-fold)
% of prison sentences suspended (2002)
% of prison sentences suspended (2012)
1 Hertfordshire
10
2,102
821
28
82
1%
36%
2 Bedfordshire
10
1,301
346
43
35
1%
26%
3 Cambridgeshire
20
       457
678
22
34
2%
34%
4 Merseyside
41
    1,081
1,338
28
33
1%
32%
5 Cumbria
13
       877
409
28
31
1%
31%
6 Northamptonshire
16
       653
487
25
30
1%
25%
7 Lancashire
57
       846
1,693
24
30
2%
36%
8 Thames Valley
43
    1,074
1,239
31
29
2%
30%
9 Essex
42
    1,137
1,134
26
27
1%
33%
10 Cheshire
26
    1,095
692
28
27
1%
28%
  • More than four in ten prison sentences (42%) in Northumbria are suspended, up from 3% in 2002. The areas with the highest share of criminals sentenced to prison who have their sentences suspended are:


2002
1 in …
2012
1 in …
Increase (-fold)
% of prison sentences suspended (2002)
% of prison sentences suspended (2012)
1 Northumbria
89
       560
1,391
35
16
3%
42%
2 Cleveland
46
       446
730
23
16
3%
37%
3 Durham
28
       502
568
22
20
2%
37%
4 Hertfordshire
10
     ,102
821
28
82
1%
36%
5 Lancashire
57
       846
1,693
24
30
2%
36%
6 Devon and Cornwall
56
       642
980
24
18
3%
36%
7 Leicestershire
50
       598
835
23
17
2%
36%
8 Kent
132
       258
1,340
24
10
4%
35%
9 Suffolk
25
       637
464
32
19
3%
34%
10 Cambridgeshire
20
       457
678
22
34
2%
34%
  • Derbyshire is the area where the greatest share of all criminals receive a suspended sentence (1 in 17, up from 1 in 653 a decade earlier). The others are:

2002
1 in …
2012
1 in …
Increase (-fold)
% of prison sentences suspended (2002)
% of prison sentences suspended (2012)
1 Derbyshire
41
       653
980
17
24
2%
34%
2 West Midlands
129
       688
2,996
20
23
1%
31%
3 Durham
28
       502
568
22
20
2%
37%
4 Nottinghamshire
123
       236
1,168
22
9
4%
33%
5 Cambridgeshire
20
       457
678
22
34
2%
34%
6 Leicestershire
50
       598
835
23
17
2%
36%
7 Cleveland
46
       446
730
23
16
3%
37%
8 Devon and Cornwall
56
       642
980
24
18
3%
36%
9 Greater Manchester
119
       821
3,010
24
25
2%
32%
10 Lancashire
57
       846
1,693
24
30
2%
36%

See the Appendix for a full region by region breakdown.

To discuss the research or arrange broadcast interviews, please contact:
Peter Cuthbertson
Director, Centre for Crime Prevention
07590 033189