If it's broke, don't fix it

By Richard Garside, Acting Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London and is Chair of the Crime and Society Foundation. April 2006

The American political scientist Barrington Moore once warned against 'the tendency to accept uncritically the notion that the present generation has really settled certain questions more or less permanently'. In Moore's sights were those who considered that certain historical questions had been answered through historical enquiry; that further research was, in essence, little more than commentary.

But Moore's warning could equally apply to the attitude of the main political parties towards certain policy questions. Take the question of crime, upon which a stifling fug of consensus has descended in recent time. Prior to the last General Election all three main parties published crime 'mini-manifestos' more notable for their agreement than for distinctive and divergent policy prescriptions. Our politicians, along with their outriders in the media, appear to consider that the big questions of the causes of and solutions to crime have been sorted out; that the policy challenge is now one of effective implementation.

From being a profoundly political question through the 1980s and 1990s, crime has become a largely managerial question in the 'noughties'. This managerialist shift is part of a generalised movement across a number of areas of government and is not limited to crime. But there is a distinctive dynamic to the managerialist turn in recent crime-related policy, focused on the performance of the criminal justice system (CJS).

Described by the Prime Minister in 2004 as the public service 'most unfit for purpose' when Labour came to power in 1997, and as 'utterly useless' earlier this year, the CJS has been subjected to sustained reforms in recent years. The 30 to 40 criminal justice-related Acts of Parliament passed since 1997 are but the most visible sign of a hectic hurly-burly period of change for the CJS that has left untouched none of its constituent agencies and has greatly expanded its role, scope and budgets.

All this activity appears to have paid dividends in the view of Labour and its supporters. The 'official' rate of crime as measured by the British Crime Survey (BCS) stood at nearly 20 million incidents in 1995. Ten years on the comparable figure was just under 11 million, a near 50 percent decline in a decade. The Conservatives dispute Labour's claims to success, citing the police recorded crime figures, which have risen since 1997, but fell under the final Conservative administration. This is the basis for Michael Howard's claim that he cut crime as Home Secretary. The Liberal Democrats have tended to avoid the numbers argument in recent years, choosing instead to champion 'tough liberal' policies.

These fundamentally minor disagreements acknowledged, all the parties agree on the importance of criminal justice interventions in the 'fight' against crime, and on the necessity of further reforms and changes in the future. Thus all three parties went into the last General Election offering a range of often overlapping policy pledges that assumed further criminal justice expansion and budget growth. The justification for this was that improved criminal justice performance would mean less crime.

There is a commonsense appeal in the notion that criminal justice processes have a significant impact on levels of crime. But commonsense or not, it is simply wrong.

Compared with the eleven million or so crime incidents estimated by the BCS in 2004/05, the equivalent of a mere four percent of incidents resulted in an individual being prosecuted, less than three percent in one being found guilty, and less than one percent in one being sent to prison. Such a clear lack of impact on the majority of known crime is partly behind the Prime Minister's concern about the 'useless' nature of the criminal justice system. Yet even these striking figures understate the lack of impact of criminal justice on crime, for official measures of crime vastly underestimate real crime levels.

Sexual assaults, for instance, are notoriously underreported in official statistics. A Home Office study published in 2004 attempted to make a more reliable estimate. It concluded that in 2001 something of the order of 720,000 sexual assaults were committed in England and Wales. In that same year 1,200 individuals were cautioned for, and 3,800 individuals were convicted of, indictable sexual offences. Put another way, more than 99 percent of estimated sexual assaults resulted in no formal criminal justice sanction. Now that truly is utterly useless, and it is likely to be a situation affecting a large array of other crime victimisations.

In the face of this profound criminal justice failure two responses present themselves. One is to follow the received wisdom of our political leaders who, like Barrington Moore's historians, believe that they have settled 'more or less permanently', the causes of, and solutions to, crime. Then the reality of criminal justice failure is, paradoxically, a spur to invest ever more in criminal justice solutions, so that finally they might work.

Though a rational response to the problem in one sense, it is a profoundly complacent and inadequate one. Ever more resources will be 'invested' in the CJS, while spurious performance targets, based on inadequate statistical measures, will give the impression of progress. Meanwhile, most crime will be left unaddressed and most victims unsupported. Hidden degradations and hidden suffering will continue to the accompaniment of backslapping in Whitehall over targets hit.

The other response involves taking seriously the reality of criminal justice failure, and looking elsewhere for solutions. There is much work to be done in this area, but some promising avenues are clear.

A study published last year by the Crime and Society Foundation, Criminal Obsessions, pointed to the strong links between homicide victimisation and poverty levels. The poorer an individual was, the more likely they were to be murdered. This study, along with Richard Wilkinson's work on the impact of inequality, suggests that a serious commitment to reducing inequality and poverty would have a significant impact on levels of violent victimisation.

Tackling poverty and inequality will never on its own be enough, not least of all because much violent victimisation is also heavily gendered, directed by men against women. As the criminologist Steve Box once put it, 'the engine of rape is not to be found between a man's loins, but in his mind.' This means that much violence suffered by some of the most vulnerable in our society will not even begin to be addressed until the systemic misogyny and sexism of British society is confronted.

What is needed in the policy debate about crime is an honesty about what criminal justice can not achieve, and an genuine openness to thinking on a much broader policy canvas, beyond the usual suspects of police, courts and prisons. This is a complex and profound challenge for sure. And not an easy one. But far better to start basing policy responses on an honest assessment of the real challenge before us than on a complacent belief in the effectiveness of a criminal justice system that needs to be dismantled, not rebuilt.

This article was published in 'Whitehall and Westminster World' (April 2006) and is an abbreviated version of a pamphlet that will be published by the Crime and Society Foundation in the early summer.

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