Friday, February 01, 2008

Three Strikes And You're Out

Any excuse will do

I've leafed through yesterday's dismal report from the NAO on Community Orders. The Orders were launched in 2003 as the government's alternative to prison, with convicted criminals remaining in our midst supposedly cleaning up graffiti etc.

In theory it sounds worth a try. But the reality is a familiar tale of shambolic organisation, patchy implementation, and a total lack of systematic monitoring:

"An order finishes when the time limit set by the court [average 14 months] has elapsed, regardless of whether or not the specified requirements have been completed. There is no national data for eleven of the twelve order requirements to show how many of the requirements given by sentencers have been completed by offenders. (para 3.4)

This means that the extent to which orders have been fulfilled (i.e. all requirements completed) by the time the order ends is not known. Local Probation Areas and the Service as a whole are therefore unable to report whether or not the sentences given by courts have been carried out, which could impact sentencer and public confidence in community orders." (para 3.6)

The bottom line is that we have no way of knowing whether criminals are serving their community sentences properly or not. Especially since Probation Officers (or "Offender Managers" as they're now known) have huge discretion in accepting excuses when their charges fail to comply with the terms of their order. Given that Probation Officers are more Mr Barrowclough than Mr MacKay, the results are all too predictable.

The press has had a field day with the NAO's summary of pathetic excuses Barrowclough will accept for not turning up to scrub graffiti (above). The only one missing is "kidnapped by aliens".

I dare say that out here in the real world none of us has any confidence in this system, especially when we read of horrific crimes committed by thugs roaming our streets despite having been convicted of earlier offences. So WTF doesn't the government just lock them up?

Forget the money argument- as we've blogged many times we could double the number of prison places for just £3bn pa, £1bn of which could come from abolishing the useless Probation Service.

So we're left with the Home Office argument that non-custodial sentences are more effective in preventing reoffending.

Yes, that's right.

That's what they say.


Every year the Home Office publishes a study on reoffending (2007 report here). The study tracks cohorts of offenders from the time they're released from a jail term or they start a community sentence. It then records how many get convicted of a further offence within two years.

The following chart shows that the reoffending rate for those given community sentences has been consistently lower than that for ex-jailbirds.

The HO conclusion is that on average community sentences are better at cutting reoffending. Job done. (The HO researchers do a stack of further number crunching in an attempt to support this contention, but none of it adds very much).

Now you may have spotted a couple of problemettes. First, those sentenced to prison are likely to be the real hard cases- the Norman Stanley Fletchers of this world. Their reoffending rates are likely to be higher because they're villains. It tells us nothing about the relative effectiveness of prison and community sentences.

Second, we only know what we know, and this measure of reoffending is actually just a measure of reconviction. All the millions of offences that don't get detected are simply not included. And over 75% of reported offences are never detected.

So what to do?

Going back to the chart, the thing that really leaps out is that the overall rate of reconviction is so high- well over 50%. For ex-prisoners, it's even higher, at around 65%. So we're routinely letting people out of jail only to have at least 65% of them reoffend. How barmy is that?

As we may possibly have said before, alongside those elected sheriffs, what we really need is a three strikes and you're out rule.

Consider another chart from the same HO study. This one shows the rate of proven reoffending (ie reconvictions) plotted against previous (ie the number of previous offences/convictions):

Guess what- the more previous a criminal has, the more likely he is to reoffend. In fact, by the time he's had 3 previous "sentencing occasions", he's more than 50% likely to reoffend and get reconvicted, within just two years. A much greater than 50% chance that he will inflict more suffering on the community whether or not he gets caught.

The Major and I are unanimous on this one.

Forget the state trying to create model citizens out of sow's ears: it would be great if we could do it, but sadly, nobody has the faintest idea how*.

If you still can't control your own behaviour after two previous convictions, why should the rest of us take the risk of having you around? Victims have rights too.

Three strikes and you're out.

*Footnote Given that the Community Order programme is evidence-lite (ie it's been based principally on wishful thinking), the NAO looked for evidence of how effective similar programmes have been overseas. Here's their summary table:

As we can see, most of these widely touted interventions simply don't work (eg unpaid work looks to be a complete waste of time). But in truth, it does seem that three approaches do have some success: cognitive behavioural therapies, drug treatment, and mental health treatment. There's just one problem- they are the very interventions the Community Order programme can't handle. Because they are the difficult ones.


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