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Artillery Row

Labour’s crime plans need more work

Limp idealism has been mixed up with solutions

This week Shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed announced that Labour wants to be the party of law and order, updating Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” by cracking down on anti-social behaviour.

Under the Conservatives, crime has gotten worse

Using freedom of information requests, Labour found that nearly two million reports of anti-social behaviour over the last three years have gone unattended. Meanwhile community sentences have more than halved since 2011. 

In an effort to increase effectiveness, Labour wants to give “a voice directly to victims” by letting them sit on community payback boards. There they could select the unpaid work that offenders have to carry out, although only from a limited “menu” of options. These boards would also oversee the sentences, making sure that offenders completed their unpaid work and holding local services or companies to account if they failed to enforce them.

The range of unpaid work to which they could be sentenced would also be increased. Judges would be encouraged to use community sentences, targeting young offenders or petty crooks before they turn into hardened criminals.

This would be part of a broader focus on prevention. Inspired by New Zealand, the system would look at common traits in childhood which can be linked to later criminal behaviour, such as domestic violence and family mental health issues. Psychologists and therapists would offer treatment to tackle “the effects of trauma”.

In addition Labour wants to force offenders to hear their sentencing in court, set up specialist rape units for every police force in England and Wales, put 13,000 officers back on the beat, create a Domestic Abuse Register, introduce a new law on street harassment and new specialist rape courts, put youth workers in custody suites to help young people get out of crime, raise the maximum sentence for spiking and increase the minimum sentences for stalking and rape.

It’s undeniable that under the Conservatives, crime has gotten worse. Just this week came the news of two brothers who got into a fight with their neighbours, culminating in one of them punching his 59 year old female neighbour in the face without provocation. Despite this, the case took over four years to come to court and ended with neither facing prison. 

Many of Labour’s ideas are to be welcomed. Putting more bobbies on the beat is very effective. Victim-reported crime drops with higher numbers of police, especially if used for “hotspot policing, where police attention is focused on high crime areas. Cuts to police numbers during the austerity years did lead to more crime, so reversing them would help (something which, to be fair to them, the Conservatives have also promised). Reversing cuts to the CPS would also have a major impact, more so than setting up new specialist courts. 

Reforms to community sentences could also help. Many judges and magistrates felt that community sentences weren’t effective enough, so preferred suspended sentences, where the offender doesn’t go to jail unless they commit another crime within a set period. Community sentences were neither “intensive, swift, nor punitive enough” to have an effective impact, with too many offenders being improperly monitored. 

There is little evidence that rehabilitation works for prolific criminals

The main problem — which Labour’s plans don’t take into account — is that many community sentences had little effect: 35 per cent of those sentenced to custody had at least five prior community sentences.

Most criminals are not like Jean Valjean, sentenced to 19 years for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving children. Instead they’re more like Chelsea Grant and Xyaire Howard, a pair of crooks from the Caribbean. They bound and gagged a British pensioner, who subsequently died, so they could use her bank cards to go on a £14,000 shopping spree. 

The statistics show that a small minority of “super-prolific” criminals, who make up only 10 per cent of offenders, commit just over half of all crimes. Despite this, fewer than half of them are sent to prison. Even when they are, it has little impact because most are released early: 70 per cent of all custodial sentences go to offenders with seven prior convictions, 50 per cent to offenders with at least 15 prior convictions.

There is little evidence that rehabilitation works for such people: 29.2 per cent reoffend within just 12 months, with 38.4 per cent of young offenders reoffending. A major study found that if offenders were made to serve two-thirds of their sentence instead of automatically being released half way through, then crime would drop dramatically. The key advantage of prison is not that it is a deterrent, but that it isolates those criminally inclined from the rest of society. Trauma therapy is very unlikely to have much impact — although that doesn’t mean it won’t help some.

Although Labour points to the example of New Zealand, much the same occurs there. They have 147 prisoners per 100,000 people (England and Wales has 159 per 100,000). Around 70 per cent of those convicted are reconvicted within two years of being released from prison, and over three-quarters of prisoners have also been victims of violence. 

Community payback boards sound nice, but they aren’t the solution to much anti-social behaviour. Instead Labour should focus on what we already know works: appropriately resourcing the criminal justice system, foot patrols in high crime areas, and the use of prison to detain those who cannot refrain from criminality. There’s no need for prison to be cruel either, which rarely works. Although Labour has complained about the lack of prison spaces, it has yet to commit to what is ultimately most necessary: building more prisons.

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