Sunday, 15 April 2012

Where Next for Criminal Justice?

There is no criminal justice if society fails to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent, between vicious crimes and petty offences, or between remorseless perpetrators and those who deeply repent their transgressions. To deploy force and punishment indiscriminately would not strengthen public safety. Ultimately, citizens need protection not just from those who seek to break the law, but also from those who act in the name of enforcing the law.

Unfortunately, with sensationalist crime reporting and politicians’ obsession with appearing to be ‘tough on crime’, misguided emotions all too often trump reliable analysis when criminal policies are argued over. The anguish of every high profile victim of crime is swiftly turned into another launch pad for a ‘robust’ response irrespective of the likely impact of the hastily formulated proposals.

Against this backdrop, a much needed antidote has arrived in the form of Where Next for Criminal Justice?, a new book by David Faulkner and Ros Burnett, (Bristol, Polity Press: 2012. If anyone wants to have any serious credibility in putting forward solutions to criminal justice problems, a firm grasp of the facts and ideas set out in this book would be indispensable.

Faulkner and Burnett have drawn on substantial practical experience and academic research to produce a clear and cogent reminder of what the real issues are. They do not dispute that some can whip up public anxiety, not to mention outrage, to back all kinds of intervention. All they ask is for those who claim to want to cut crime to engage with the facts. For example, evidence tell us that changes to sentencing policy actually have a very limited impact on reducing crime; an increase of 15% in prison population might at best reduce crime by 1%; a 10% increase in number of police officers might reduce crime by 3%; and restorative approaches are not only generally welcome by victims, but have been found to reduce re-offending by nearly 14%. Furthermore, studies have confirmed that re-offending rates for those engaged in rehabilitative treatment compare favourably against corresponding measures for control groups.

When the government is daily insisting public expenditure must be more drastically cut, it is imperative that policy makers weigh intervention options in terms of their real impact and cost effectiveness. Prevention through education and social support so that people are not left to the margins of society with little self-esteem or too much pent-up anger is far more efficient than piling far more resources on crime fighting down the road.

At the same time, criminals who slip through current preventative measures need to be dealt with. Apart from the incorrigible minority who would not desist from causing harm to others – and who must therefore be detained for as long as necessary to protect others – the majority of offenders are likely to respond most to having someone who believes in their capacity for improvement and who acts accordingly to help them acquire better self-control and develop their life skills. Whether in prison or in the community, rehabilitative work should be guided by what evidence has uncovered as efficacious.

Reading this book, I was struck by the fact that since the resurgence of widening inequalities in the UK from the 1980s on, “new criminal offences have been created at the astonishing rate of about 150 a year for almost 20 years.” In these decades, the UK overtook Turkey in putting a higher percentage of its population in prison. Growing socio-economic disparity in our country has bred distrust and tension. The hysterical response of criminalising more activities, spreading the net of suspicion, disparaging rehabilitation, and accelerating the rate of incarceration, has only left many people still fretful of living in unsafe communities.

It is time for politicians, policy commentators, and criminal justice agents, to take a serious look at what the evidence tells us, and rethink what should really be done.