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Memo to Chris Grayling - staff cuts in the justice system needn't lead to a rise in crime

By Matthew Barrett
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Chris Grayling has a difficult time ahead of him. For the rest of this Parliament, he will be dealing with an uncomfortable situation at the Ministry of Justice. For example, Ken Clarke had to weigh up not cutting as much as he could from legal advice services, or cutting legal advice and costing the Government more money than if it had left legal advice alone - for under £100, a family could receive advice on a housing problem from a Citizen’s Advice Bureau that could prevent a council having to spend thousands of pounds to house the aforementioned family later on.

Legal aid cuts have been condemned by many in the legal establishment (who Mr Grayling will have to work with if he is to make a success of his new position), and by MPs, including one who has just been made a Minister in his department.

Perhaps most importantly, the thousands of staff cuts overseen by Mr Clarke will bring problems administering justice in the country - the cuts will come from prison officers, probation officers, and legal staff. One might expect crime to rise, given how important a role these positions play. But it needn't - a Civitas report, "Offender-Desistance Policing and the Sword of Damocles", by Cambridge criminologists, Lawrence Sherman and Peter Neyroud, looks at modern criminological theory and experience from around the globe - and how it can help stop a rise in crime at relatively low cost, if Mr Grayling puts it into practice. The report recommends three main strands of measures to keep crime low with limited resources.

The first part of Sherman and Neyroud's report looks at Hawaii's Opportunity and Probation and Enforcement programme, which showed that moderate but immediate punishments encouraged offenders to desist from crime. The scheme was specially targeted at drug addicts on probation schemes, who had to see probation officers every day. Half of the offenders were chosen for random (as opposed to scheduled and predictable) drugs tests. Failing the test would lead to immediate and gradually escalating penalties, starting at one night in jail, and moving up to two nights, three nights, and so on. The study found that, compared to offenders on the same scheme who had the drugs tests but not the same penalties, offenders with the penalties had half as many arrests for new crimes, spent half as much time in prison, and cost half the amount of administering justice.

The second stand of Sherman and Neyroud's smarter policing approach is targeting likely re-offenders. They recommend focusing police and prosecution resources on a crime forecasting model, in which criminals would be dealt with if they are predicted to pose a threat to the public. This would include targeting dangerous and violent criminals for longer prison sentences, reducing supervision for offenders who are seen as unlikely to re-offend, but increasing supervision for those with a high chance. These steps would allow police to focus their attention in the right places, and encourage re-offenders to desist from their actions.

The third strand of the report is the "Sword of Damacles", a proposed pilot scheme, in which arrested criminals would be offered an alternative to prosecution - they would be assigned to police offender-managers who could "nudge" offenders into keeping crime-free, with the threat of instant prosecution if they fail. The strategies that could be tested in the pilot, as suggested by Sherman and Neyroud, are:

  • Unannounced door-knocking to monitor criminals and their associates
  • Curfews
  • Voluntary drug treatment
  • Treatment for past traumas
  • Criminals being made to apologise to their victims
  • Criminals being relocated to other areas in order to break up groups of offenders

These three strands of low-cost justice measures focus on "offender-desistance policing" and aim to deter crime with the threat of immediate consequences as opposed to the rather less certain threat of punishment in a future court case. More police supervision for likely re-offenders is also seen as being able to help criminals with personal problems which make crime an attractive option for them. Certain measures, such as the relocation for persistant offenders could even begin the transition between criminality and becoming normal, law-abiding members of society.

Britain's justice strategy is muddled. Clearly any modern system needs different policies to deal with different problems; for example, a government's drug rehabilitation programmes will probably differ in the message they send to criminals compared to a government's anti-knife crime programmes. This is understandable. So too is the need for short-term strategies to cope with crime during a tough period for criminal justice staff numbers, as suggested by Sherman and Neyroud. However, Britain will also need to consider its long-term approach at some point in the next few years, unless the public is to harbour a perpetual fear of crime. In Mr Grayling, we have a man who can both deliver a plan to deal with the immediate situation, and, hopefully, think ahead for the future.


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