Shine A Light

Resist government’s obsession with men in uniform

The United Kingdom’s over-reliance on policing, prosecution and punishment is socially harmful and economically wasteful. There are more just and effective ways to make us safer.

Richard Garside
30 January 2014

After its bruising report on the government's plans to privatise probation in England and Wales, the House of Commons Justice Committee continues its inquiry into crime reduction policies.

On Tuesday I gave evidence to the Committee, alongside Ben Page from Ipsos-Mori, Professor Andromachi Tseloni of Loughborough University and Professor Mike Hough of Birkbeck, University of London.

The session ranged over a number of issues: the importance of looking at crime in its variety, rather than fixating on 'overall crime'; public opinion and the role the tabloid media; and the relatively small impact the police and prisons have on crime. You can watch it all here.

In the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies' written evidence to the Committee we argued that there was considerable scope for a reduction in criminal justice spending and a strong case for downsizing the criminal justice system.

Our three reviews of government spending between 1999 and 2009 — on the police, the prison and probation services and the Crown Court and magistrates’ courts — point to a notable increase in criminal justice expenditure.

Spending on the police in England and Wales grew in real terms by 50 per cent between 1999 and 2009. In the case of the Prison and Probation Services there was a real-terms spending growth of 36 per cent between 2004 and 2009. Expenditure on magistrates’ courts grew in real terms by 17 per cent from 1998/1999 to 2003/2004 and by 31 per cent from 2005/2006 to 2008/2009. Expenditure on the Crown Court increased by 10 per cent in real terms from 2005/2006 to 2008.

These generous spending increases financed growth in these services, though this growth was uneven. Police numbers grew significantly while their caseload stabilised. Prison numbers and probation caseloads grew more quickly than budget growth, putting significant strain on both services. Per prisoner expenditure declined in real terms from 2006. Frontline probation staff numbers declined after 2006 while caseloads grew. Magistrates’ courts’ caseloads and staffing declined from 2006 while Crown Court caseloads grew from 2005.

The current squeeze on public spending presents an opportunity to resize the various criminal justice agencies in a manner that delivers real social benefit and leaves those services in better shape. This would involve a general downsizing of the criminal justice system: fewer arrests; fewer prosecutions; fewer prisoners; fewer probationers; fewer criminal justice workers, whether police officers, judges and magistrates, prison and probation officers or others.

Downsizing criminal justice and public safety

What would the effect on public safety be of a downsized criminal justice system? Across a range of concerns — child abuse, sexual assaults, violence, road traffic offences, fraud and corruption to name but a few — we hear calls for more, not fewer prosecutions. Surely a downsized criminal justice system would make us less, not more, safe?

There is no simple response to this quite understandable concern. Many may agree that far too many people needlessly end up in prison. Expecting widespread support for fewer prosecutions for child abusers, sexual predators and dangerous drivers, on the other hand, is a different matter.

That said, there is little if any academic evidence to support the proposition that rates of imprisonment, police numbers or policing strategies can explain falls in crime. This has been corroborated by the National Audit Office report, Comparing International Criminal Justice Systems, which found “no consistent correlations” between official crime rates and the numbers in prison across a range of countries. The National Audit Office noted that prison “is very expensive” and questioned “aspects of its cost-effectiveness”.

Policies that promote greater safety

Most of the effective policies that can promote greater safety are not, ultimately, criminal justice ones.

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies' comprehensive review of gun and knife crime strategies cast doubt on the effectiveness of police-led approaches. We found that effective strategies typically were holistic, engaging with the big questions of disadvantage and social exclusion, as well as addressing individual, familial and neighbourhood problems.

Research published a couple of years ago found an interesting correlation between the early 1970s raising of the school leaving age from 15 to 16 and reduced rates of property crime. The trend towards more young people staying on for longer in education is a good thing in itself. It might, incidentally, also result in fewer of them getting into trouble with the police.

The reduction in the child poverty rate over the past decade is an important and welcome development that has enhanced the lives of many thousands of children and their families. It could also help to explain the reduction in the number of young people coming to the attention of the police.

There are many things a government can do to encourage a safer society, less riven by conflict and victimisation. Most aren't badged 'crime reduction' or delivered by a man in a uniform.

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