‘They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work,’ said the Soviet worker in the good old days; the British criminal could nowadays say with equal reason, ‘They pretend to punish us and we pretend to reform.’
Recent statistics show that two thirds of young criminals ordered to wear electronic tags break their court orders almost with impunity. Nothing could better reveal the hall of mirrors that the British criminal justice system long ago became than the response of Keith Vaz, the chairman of the House of Commons all-party Home Affairs Committee, to very similar news last year. ‘The public,’ he said, ‘must be convinced that community sentences are an effective form of punishment.’
In other words, the problem is not how to make community sentences work, but how to create the misleading public impression that they do. This has for decades been the ruling imperative of that great friend to the British criminal, the Home Office (and now the Ministry of Justice). It struggles might and main not to reduce criminality but to reduce the public’s supposedly neurotic fear of crime, and it does so by sowing confusion — confusion with a roseate glow.
Forked-tonguery remains the order of the day among the British political class. Who does not remember Mr Blair’s ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’? In an interview with the Daily Telegraph this month, the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, said that he would like to see longer prison sentences for hardened criminals while also arguing for the use of more electronic tagging, only a matter of five days before he announced the closure of seven prisons as a cost-cutting measure and only a few more days before figures showing the uselessness of electronic tagging were issued from his own department. I’ve known burglars more honest and straightforward than British politicians: who, incidentally, are overwhelmingly the largest single cause of crime in this country.
Let me give a small example of the obfuscatory official methods used to confuse the public. For quite a long time the Home Office recorded the two-year reconviction rate of people given community sentences. Suddenly, and without warning or explanation, it started to publish the three-month ‘reoffending’ rate. Why the change?
First, criminologists say it made genuine comparison almost impossible: were things getting better, worse, or remaining the same? Nevertheless, the impression of improvement was created because the reoffending figure for the shorter period was, naturally enough, lower (10 per cent) than for the longer period (50-plus per cent). Ten per cent doesn’t sound quite so bad.
Second, and more sinister, the new terminology — reoffending rather than reconviction rate — was in effect a deliberate lie. The two rates would be the same if, and only if, the police solved every recorded crime, instead of 28 per cent of such crimes (and a much lower rate of all crimes, since not all are recorded).
But there is an implicit lie even in the reconviction rate. This is because it is calculated in a binary fashion: conviction or no conviction. Thus multiple convictions, either on one or on many occasions, count as one; and here it should be remembered that 30 per cent of offenders convicted of indictable offences (most of whom are probably already under so-called supervision) have 15 or more previous convictions.
Almost everything possible, then, is done to limit the public’s understanding of the scale of reoffending by people on community sentences. It is easy to work out that hundreds of thousands of crimes, possibly even millions, are committed by people serving community sentences (incidentally, a fifth of crimes in Scotland are committed by people already on bail). The true reoffending rate of people on community sentences is probably several hundred per cent. In a way this is encouraging: it suggests that the great majority of crime, even nowadays, is committed by a relatively small proportion of the population, and that with a little honesty, courage and determination, alas the very qualities that our political class entirely lacks, a marked reduction in the rate of crime would be possible. Another fact pointing to the same conclusion is that the vast majority of offending, to judge by the age of prisoners at entry into prison, ceases spontaneously by the age of 39.
Instead of clarity, however, we get smokescreens, for example bogus comparisons and near-suppression of relevant facts. The recidivism rate of criminals sentenced to short terms of imprisonment is often compared with those of people given community sentences. This comparison is bogus. First, the recidivism rate of prisoners is calculated from the date of their release while that of people with community sentences is calculated from the day of their sentence. Next, the great majority of prisoners have already been through the community sentence charade, often many times. A Home Office study once found that most prisoners admitted to 140 crimes in the year before their incarceration. What the public is interested in is not the bogus relative rates of recidivism, but a comparison of the number of crimes similar criminals commit within a certain period. It is obvious that the two-year reoffending rate of a prisoner who spends two years in prison approaches zero (he can offend against other prisoners, of course, and if he is a member of a criminal gang may arrange crimes from inside); but someone on a community sentence of two years is almost certain to commit more than one crime during that period. Recidivism, incidentally, tends to decline with length of prison sentence, a fact that could surprise only intellectuals.
When it comes to electronic tags, it was known perfectly well from the outset that they did not work; despite this, the official decision was taken to use more of them. For example, one Home Office trial undertaken in 1996-7 on 374 criminals demonstrated that 73 per cent were reconvicted within two years. Their reoffending rate, then, must have been astronomical. In other words, the whole programme was expanded in the full and certain knowledge that it did not work. Some 280,000 offenders have been tagged since David Cameron came to power.
Even the most minimal reflection should have been sufficient to realise that there was no reason why it should have worked. Tagging keeps offenders indoors for up to 12 hours, leaving 12 hours in which they can commit crimes. Most criminals are not great travellers; they commit crimes very near where they live. Probation is even worse nonsense, at least for recidivists, as are the vast majority of people on probation.
The British criminal justice system has become an elaborate sham, in which lawyers, private companies, the Home Office and criminals prey in concert on the rest of the population. Here is an example of the frivolity of the system, taken at random from the weekly local newspaper I have in front of me.
A 36-year-old man who had broken with his girlfriend sent her threatening messages, including to destroy all her future relationships, to cut off the head of her cat and post it through the letter-box, and ‘do over’ her father. On two occasions he assaulted her; on the second, he dragged her by her hair into the street, in public, where he got her to the ground, hit her on both sides of the head and kicked her several times in the abdomen. He was stopped only by the intervention of a neighbour.
His lawyer claimed that he was deeply remorseful; that he recognised that his behaviour was ‘inappropriate’; that he did not intend to harm the woman (a therapeutic kicking, then); and that he wanted to learn from the whole experience. The magistrates pretended to believe it and sentenced him — with a probation order — to an ‘Integrated Domestic Abuse Programme’.
The report does not say, but I am sure that he was dragged from the dock screaming, ‘No, not an Integrated Domestic Abuse Programme! Anything but that! I’ll go straight, guv, if only you don’t give me the Integrated!’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 26 January 2013