New frontiers of criminal justice: Mark Easton

11 March 2015

Ten years ago I chaired an internal BBC discussion on crime and played a game of odd-one-out with the audience. I showed them pictures of four men: David Blunkett, Jack Straw, Michael Howard and Roger Carr, former Chief Executive of Williams plc.

Three Home Secretaries alongside a businessman, but which was the odd-one out? You’ve got it. Roger Carr, I explained, was the only one who could legitimately claim to have had a significant impact on crime reduction. (Williams plc, as the parent company for Yale locks and Chubb locks in the mid-nineties, had developed numerous security solutions for cars, homes and offices.)

I was being provocative, but the idea that the criminal justice system is the key to altering crime trends has come under increasing challenge.

With crime levels having fallen in almost every developed nation over the last 20 years, irrespective of the criminal justice policies being followed, the suggestion that the solution to offending behaviour might be found in police numbers or prison capacity or sentencing policy is becoming much harder to sustain. Each may play a role, but most experts now agree that these only have an impact at the margins.

Something much bigger is going on – a societal shift in behaviour that has got criminologists, sociologists and even anthropologists scratching their heads.

I recall a leaked letter from the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in 2008 warning Gordon Brown that the economic downturn would put “upward pressure” on property crime. Home Office Minister Tony McNulty was asked about it on the BBC Today programme and described it as “a statement of the blindingly obvious”.

According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, burglaries have fallen 21 per cent since the economic crisis hit, car theft is down 37 per cent and other acquisitive crimes have shown similar reductions. It isn’t so “blindingly obvious” after all.

The argument that more prison equals less crime enjoys widespread popularity. It seems blindingly obvious that if the bad guys are locked up they cannot be committing offences. But, again, the correlation between the two is weak.

Prison numbers in England and Wales doubled between 1951 and 1971 as police-recorded crime trebled. Between 1971 and 1991 recorded crime trebled again, while prison numbers remained largely unchanged. Recorded crime is far from a perfect measure of true crime levels, of course, but the evidence of a direct link between prison use and offending is certainly thin.

Cuts in police funding and, in turn, reductions in the number of officers, prompted warnings that it was blindingly obvious the result would be a rise in crime. In fact, there is little evidence that more police means less crime. Through the sixties, seventies and eighties, crime rose as police numbers rose. In the last five years, we have seen crime fall as constabulary budgets fall.

In part, this may be because the police are becoming smarter in preventing crime – using their resources more efficiently and effectively. But it may also be because police activity has only a limited effect on the behaviour of the community they serve.

If the criminal justice system has only a marginal impact on crime levels, what is it for? I have always liked Sir Robert Peel’s instruction to officers in the General Instructions of 1829: “To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

The phrase “community welfare and existence” is central. We want our street, our neighbourhood and our society to thrive, and we look to the state to assist in making that happen. Encouraging respect for each other and each other’s property, encouraging tolerance of difference and intolerance of those who threaten the welfare of the community – that is surely what we want the police and the courts to do. It is what we want all citizens to do.

This mission for the criminal justice system, as defined by Sir Robert, allows us to think more radically about how it should operate. If the question shifts from “how can we cut crime?” to “how can we promote community welfare?” it liberates the debate from a narrow argument about “crime” to a broader one about “harm”.

For me, then, the “new frontiers of criminal justice” are being explored by those who don’t see themselves restricted by a traditional criminal justice paradigm. It is less about tackling anti-social behaviour and more about encouraging pro-social behaviour. It is less about technology and more about psychology. It is less about force and more about nudge. It isn’t so “blindingly obvious” after all.

Mark Easton, Home Editor, BBC News
@BBCMarkEaston

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