Interesting piece by David Gauke, one of the liberal Tories sacked by Johnson, who says he initially supported the Government on COVID, noting the exceptional and novel challenges it poses, but that he ceased to do so as the sheer number of disasters and misfires mounted up. He makes the point: "A Government that shows humility and honesty will retain the benefit of the doubt, but that runs counter to a ‘never apologise, never explain’ ethos. "
So true. 'Sorry' is one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of any leader (if genuine and if not over-used - and if leading to real improvement), but the more insecure and autocratic the leader, the more it feels to them like weakness to admit they have done anything wrong or failed in any way. I think of the way Martin Narey, my boss, used to go on the media immediately and admit that something that had just gone terribly wrong in prisons WAS indeed terribly wrong and could not be defended. He thus disarmed criticism before it was fairly launched. Johnson, and especially Trump, represent the polar opposite: never apologies. And boy! does that not work!
The other day, someone contacted me about my book – yes, it still happens, every third blue moon – and I thought to have a look again at the latest performance ratings for prisons, for 2018-19, published nearly a year ago. Remember, back when COVID was just a misprint for ‘Corvid’?
When I was the Director responsible for Government research and statistics dealing with correctional services, the statisticians were people of complete integrity. They might make mistakes, sometimes, but you couldn’t get them to play politics, indeed publications were sometimes held up for months because Ministers wanted them to say things that the scientists said were misleading.
Nowadays, for the MoJ, spin is all. The bulletin for the 2018-19 ratings is so very proud at the progress being made. “13% of prisons were rated as having exceptional performance, the highest rate since 2014-2015”. And “more prisons were rated as having acceptable or exceptional performance than in 2017-18 or in 2016-17” and “there were fewer prisons where performance was rated as of concern or of serious concern”.
Slight problem: the same bulletin says such comparisons are rubbish. It says in the small print that because a new rating system was introduced in 2018-19, “comparisons cannot be made to performance rating s from 2017-18” (since they were derived from a different system) or with ratings before 2017-18 since those were based on a yet another different, earlier, system. Clear enough! One of the banes of Government stats is that these breaks in series occur all the time, yet what people often most want is to see a trend. Happens all the time with accounts, too.
Yet the authors of the bulletin immediately break their own rules!
I think I’ll ask the UK Statistical Authority to offer MoJ some help in understanding their own bulletins.
What is even more dubious is the choice of 2014-15 as the benchmarking year. Why that particular year? Why not an earlier year? Because any earlier year would remind us that the prison (and for that matter, probation) services were in a good state in 2010 – when the Tories came in. Why not benchmark on 2010-11, when not one single prison was rated as having performance causing serious concern. Not. A. Single. One. Compared to nearly 1 in 7 prisons last year. (Since MoJ ignores its own rules on past comparisons, why shouldn’t I?). Even more damning, in 2010-11 nearly every prison in the country, an astonishing 98%, were rated as either ‘exceptional ‘or meeting the majority of targets. In 2017-18, before the figures were conveniently ‘improved’ in 2018-19 by introducing yet another a new system, half of all prisons were failing.
MoJ play the same game with staffing numbers, comparing todays’ numbers with the year numbers were lowest and announcing the result as a triumphant x% increase. But the true baseline in 2010, before the Tory cuts started. Which would show that in our prisons, today, we have 16% fewer front line staff on our landings than we had in 2010. Which, in the opinion of everyone except Tory Ministers, and their stooges in the MoJ, is the reason the prison service has been brought so low, that foreign courts bar transfer of prisoners to the UK on humanitarian grounds. In the same way a slight fall in stats such as assaults or self-harm are trumpeted, ignoring the fact that they are nevertheless still over twice as high as when the Tories came in.
The MoJ hope we are too stupid, too lazy, to realise the extent of the damage Tory policies have done not just to prisons and probation, but to every single element of our justice system since they came to power in 2010. Well: I’m not. Nor, I hope, are you.
Woken at 5 a.m. by a blackbird just outside our bedroom, singing its head off. Our most beautiful songster, I think. Rather that than the show-off nightingale. After 20 minutes or so, pigeons started a throaty ostinato, then distant crows cawing, then at about 5.45 the electric twittering of our sparrow hedge. And I felt such deep longing to be in harmony with the natural world, that I felt like crying.
We shall miss these days, when COVID is over. That sounds strange, but it’s true. Yes, suffering surrounds us like a sea, stretching limitlessly in every direction, stretching to every country and far, far into the future, as the tide of damage, economic, mental, spiritual, political, diplomatic, rolls on and on. And yes, it is terrible.
But sometimes, it feels like we are also being shown something, something we always longed for, but thought could never be, shown it actually can exist. That for a moment, it does exist. That if we just restrain ourselves, the natural world we have been so relentlessly despoiling will come roaring back, and it will be immensely healing. That the air can be fit to breath, the sky truly blue instead of a film of muck, the quiet overwhelming, bringing us back to our true selves. And that we can just peel off all the labels that help divide us, Chinese, Italian, English – or Brexiter or Tory or white or male or middle class or all the others – and realise with a sudden rush of recognition that, faced with this awful challenge, we are all one. Not that we should be, but that we already are. And that as one, we could be unstoppable, there would be nothing we could not do.
But it cannot last. Already the traffic here is about half way back to normal. Already I can taste the diesel fumes in my throat, my senses heightened by breathing clean air for the first time since …when? Already work has restarted on the development near us. Already the stupidity, division, of politics, the pointless, insulting tribalism and point scoring, is starting up again. Soon we will all go back to exactly the same ideas and standpoints and feuds we had before. Soon the second home owners will rush off to their places in the country or in France, we will start booking fights and hotels, buy another machine, and another…. We will miss the opportunity to change the way we think, act, organise, produce, consume, live.
And when we go back to traffic jams all day long, and breathing air acrid with fumes, and peering at skies crowded with vapour trails and Heathrow Hell and busyness and rush everywhere and everywhere Nature and peace being trashed and trampled on, we will miss these days like a dream of something better, something we truly do not deserve. For it is a dream that belongs to some other species than Man. We are too busy, too greedy, too lacking in wisdom, restraint, kindness.
We shall miss these days. And we shall never see them again.
Didn't there used to be something called the 'Labour Party'? Headed by Clem Kinnock or someone? If you see it, please don't approach it, as it may be toxic, but call a vet.
Meanwhile, since we no longer have any politics in this country, here's some recent glass, made since I started learning painting on glass from the very gifted Anna Gillespie of Charlbury.
Now HERE'S a leader!
Listen to these old soldiers, and weep: here
A surprising, and potentially explosive, twist to the ongoing SERCO fraud scandal (see previous blogs):
The shareholders, including the BBC, BA and Shell Pension Funds, are suing SERCO in the wake of disclosure, in a court hearing last summer, that SERCO’s margins on the tagging contract had been way ahead of forecasts as early as 2006. Presumably they will claim that SERCO’s concealment of their true profit margin artificially inflated share prices, and that eventual discovery of this led to a catastrophic collapse in the share price and thus the pension funds’ assets. Potentially, the claim could be for many hundreds of millions.
This is of particular interest given that Judge William Davis observed last summer that the fraud had been organised by and for the benefit of the SERCO main company, but that no ‘directing mind’ within the main company could be identified and charged. It will be interesting to see the argument run, that SERCO is not liable for the civil suit, because no one was actually directing the company.
In a recent post, I said that the SCERO/G4S electronic monitoring scandal (“this one will run and run” – Serious Fraud Office) had given rise to many scandals, one nesting inside the other, as it were.
Another has come to light. The Financial Reporting Council, regulatory body for accountants, actuaries and auditors, has published findings against Deloittes and two auditors. The findings were of misconduct in:
failing to respond to clear indicators of the risk of potential fraud on a UK Government Department, despite such indicators being visibly set out on the SERCO Geographix audit file (for the years in question)
failing to comply with important audit standards and included failings in relation to identifying the risk of fraud or material misstatement and the exercise of professional scepticism.
These are the accounts which, the SFO alleges, were manipluated so as to enable SERCO to give a false account of the profitability of its electronic monitoring contract to the MoJ.
Deloittes was fined £6.5m and the individuals also fined. Deloittes was also severely reprimanded and required to put in place extra training.
It perhaps may be a good idea for Deloittes to look for a new trainer, as previous fines and severe reprimands against Deloittes for professional failings in the Aero Inventory and MG Rover cases (2016 and 2015) have clearly not had the desired effect. They were also damned by the House of Commons Select Committees' inquiry into the Carilion collapse. Either Deloittes is out of proper control or it cynically shrugs off such reprimands, severe or not, as the price of doing business. With a turnover of over $40bn, the fines are loose change; as for reputational damage – well, it's not entirely clear that how easy it would be possible to damage Deloittes reputation.
Corruption is contagious. I hasten to add, I am not suggesting used dollar bills were handed over to Deloittes in brown envelopes: it’s clear from the FRC report that is not what happened. But in a way, frank corruption like that is easier to guard again, investigate and deal with. No, what I mean here is a sort of moral contagion: when one person, or company, decided to cut corners and bend the rules, then other bodies, other companies and individuals adjacent to the wrong doer, or doing business with it, may well come under pressure to turn a blind eye, not raise awkward questions, in short, not to exercise ‘professional scepticism’.
No such action has occurred in relation to G4S, further evidence that in accounting terms, the two companies dealt with the issue in different ways, as I noted in my last piece.
The Serious Fraud Office’s six (!) year investigation of the electronic monitoring scandal that broke in 2013 took a smallish step forward this month, as regards SERCO – albeit a rather damp squib, the SFO having concluded that, while they were satisfied that alleged fraud was organised by, and for the benefit of, the main company, there was no evidence of ‘a controlling mind’ (just sorta happened, I guess!). So only a couple of smallish fry were offered up.
That leaves G4S. From the start, G4S were uncooperative with the inquiry, and were not offered the deal (Deferred Prosecution Agreement) such as the SFO and SERCO agreed, that allowed SERCO to, in effect, buy off a corporate prosecution (not that they needed to worry - the SFO told the judge that SERCO were too important a supplier of public services to be prosecuted – too big to prosecute, one might say.)
There may be differences, of course. G4S’s equivalent of SERCO’s Geographix reported losses in 2010 and 2011 and only a 11% profit in 2012 – such rotten luck, at a time when SERCO’s Geographix, in the same business, with the same UK customer, was reporting a profit of 80%! However, the position is obscured by the fact that G4S was doing similar business outside the UK.
Any outcome with G4S will rather point up the contrast with SERCO – if G4S are charged corporately, why not SERCO? If G4S aren’t charged at all, why were the SERCO officers charged, and for that matter, how did the SFO manage to take 6 years working out that G4S should not be charged?
If an outsourcing company is charged corporately with fraud, that would be devastating. Except that G4S isn’t beholden to the UK Government to the extent that SERCO is. The UK still accounts for 40% of SERCO’s revenue, and its main customer is Government (central and local Government, including justice, defence and transport, healthcare and immigration). Hence the new Chairman’s preoccupation with its penitence, reform and helpful suggestions for a new start on outsourcing.
G4S, by contrast, is a truly global company, taking less than a sixth of its profits from the UK and Ireland, moreover its exposure within the UK to Government is far less – and rapidly reducing. It has been taking steps to rid itself of the UK Government as customer (1) – G4S already announced that it is exiting Secure Training Centres and Immigration Removal Centres, and while it has bid into the Prison Operators Services framework competition, I suspect that in the aftermath of the Birmingham prison fiasco, there will be no more appetite in G4S for these tight margined, operational difficult and reputationally hazardous contracts. G4S’s exposure to the UK Government is now minimal. That in itself is a headache for the MoJ, since 2 suppliers is not a competitive market. They must be relying on MITIE and others to take up the role, perhaps buying out the long term G4S PFI contracts. That would be a brave decision, in Sir Humphrey’s words, given the state of the prison system, and the serial incompetence of the customer.
Thus, G4S could be far better positioned than SERCO to fight any charges. I hope they do. Because that is the only way, we, the public, will ever learn what actually happened, including, crucially, the multiple failures by the MoJ itself, that helped facilitate the loss of hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money.
(1) The UK Government. But curiously, the Scottish Government has only last month let the contract for EM in Scotland to G4S. Perhaps they know something we don't, or perhaps they just don't care what the English do!
lick here to edit.
Postcript added 18 December
Readers of my book, and of this blog, will be aware of my keen interest in the saga of the scandal which broke as long ago as 2013, involving SERCO and G4S wrongly billing the Ministry of Justice for huge amounts of public money on their contracts for tagging of offenders. The companies were forced to repay nearly £200m – many times the take of the Great Train Robbery or Brink’s Mat heist.
The matter was referred to the Serious Fraud Office whose investigations – incredibly – are still not concluded, 6 years later. In my 2016 book, ‘Competition for prisons’, I devoted a chapter to this story, and noted then that it was unlikely the real story would ever be told, as it suited all parties that it should not be, and that the interminable SFO investigation has conveniently kept the facts under wraps (1). Trying to get at the facts, I have also pursued FoI applications, in one case as far as a FoI Tribunal (I won).
Why raise this now?
Because on 18 December we should be allowed to know at least some of the facts. In July, Mr Justice Davis approved what is known as a ‘Deferred Prosecution Agreement’ between the SFO and SERCO. This device, introduced by the Crime and Courts Act 2013, allows the SFO and the company it is investigating to reach an agreement by which the company avoids prosecution. In return, the company pays compensation, undertakes to fully cooperate with the SFO’s ongoing investigation against individuals and to agree to comply with independent review of its accounting procedures.
Mr Justice Davis also stated that the Statement of Facts drawn up by the SFO, and agreed with SERCO, would remain confidential until 18 December, when a decision is due on whether any individuals should be charged. We may, then, be within days of knowing a good deal more about this case.
It is already clear that we are dealing with not one scandal but a whole series of scandals – one nesting within another, as it were. They comprise:
[EXPLAINER:] If the case is no longer about wrongful charging for work never done, what is it about? It is about manipulation of accounts so as to give misleading information to the customer Government, about profit margins. This is important because the contracts, which appear to have been poorly drafted, did not reduce the unit cost per tagging operation with increasing volumes. One would expect that to be so, because some of the development, infrastructure, etc costs are fixed, and do not increase proportionately as volumes increase. And they did increase very substantially. Thus, if a fixed unit price prevails, profit margins will rise. To guard against this, SERCO was contractually required to report actual costs and revenues as they occurred, as the basis for negotiation of any abatement should the profit margin exceed that assumed at contract signature. The case now is about whether the wholly owned subsidiary of SERCO that made and supplied the tags, SERCO Geographix, manipulated its accounts so as to falsely reduce the apparent profit margin as made visible to the customer. (2)]
6. Lastly there must be some concern whether the outcome will ascribe culpability where it should properly lie. Mr Justice Davis noted: “As it was described in vernacular terms during the private hearing, SGL cooked their books to allow SL to retain the profit, 50% of which was believed otherwise would have been clawed back by the Ministry of Justice…” and “SL [SERCO, the main company, and owner of SERCO Geographix] was the beneficiary of the fraud. Thus, the scheme was devised by management within SL. “ But then added: “However, no “directing mind” of SL currently can be shown to have been involved in the devising and the putting into effect of the fraud. So it is that SL is not a party to the DPA.”
It would appear therefore that the entire hierarchy of SERCO itself is out of the picture, leaving the focus only on officers of its subsidiary, SERCO Geographix. But given that the latter was wholly owned by the former and under its control and direction, how can it be that only SERCO Geographix is now in the frame? Indeed, what possible point or benefit could be achieved by those in SERCO Geographix, if the benefit of the fraud was reaped exclusively by the main company? Is there not evidence of a history of manipulating the margin that historically, clearly involved the main company? (2) And, one might ask, does that not give SERCO somewhat conflicted interests in negotiating the DPA?
That must be a matter of keenest attention now, whether proceedings are launched or not.
POSTCRIPT 18 December
Announced this week that two SERCO employees were to be charged. But neither a Director of SERCO. Job done! Except for that awkward conclusion by Mr Justice Davis: "the scheme was devised by management within SL [ie the main company].....However, no “directing mind” of SL currently can be shown to have been involved in the devising and the putting into effect of the fraud. " That can only mean that the main actors are missing from the charge sheet.
Martin Narey, former head of the prison and probation service, caused a stir at a conference of the International Correction and Prisons Association in October, when he publicly renounced the belief, that he himself had been instrumental in creating when in office, that prisons can reduce reoffending (here).
I’m surprised how little response there has been – it’s almost as though people can’t quite believe he said something so sacrilegious. Such comment as I’ve seen is either gentle ignoring it as some sort of dubious jeu d’esprit, agreeing with him, or claiming that if properly funded and run, prisons could cut reoffending. (One who agreed with him said that it was hopeless to take on the vested interests of the ‘recidivism industrial complex’.)
What he said – and didn’t say
Is he right? And if he is, what are the implications for penal policy, and prison management?
First, though, what did he actually say? Well, of course he did not say, prison has no effect on reoffending. ‘Of course,’, because to know that, one would have to match prisoners by offence, criminal history etc with similar offenders who got some other sentence, then see how often they reoffended. And you can’t do that, because despite what the Daily Mail would have you believe, there isn’t a similar group of rapists, murderers etc who get a fine or unpaid work. So it seems to me that we don’t know, and can’t know, what effect a prison sentence has on reoffending (other than for short sentences, where you can match with those given non-custodial sentences, see below). But we know reconviction rates are stubbornly high.
Martin also did not say, ‘nothing works’ – the slogan of some criminologists in the 1980s. He did not say that prisons could never rehabilitate anyone. Plainly, they can, as we know that from research into the effects of particular programmes, which can show reductions of 5 or 10% (see here or more recently, here). But particular programmes that work only for particular types of offender, so the impact overall on all prisoners is smaller. (By the by, when you look at these meta-studies, what an extraordinary proportion of studies are of no or limited use, simply because of poor research design!)
So what did Martin say? He said that he no longer believed it possible to drive down the reoffending rate for the whole prison population, to any significant extent. He pointed out that the most ambitious programme ever mounted to cut reoffending, that he had presided over, achieved only a tiny – too small, he said, to be the justification for imprisonment. (Curiously little attention has been paid to a similarly ambitious – and similarly unsuccessful – programme in New Zealand, which aimed at a 25% fall in reconviction rates. After initial excellent result, the trend reversed, and within 5 years they were back pretty much where they had started.)
Martin was especially critical of the ‘sheep-dip approach – the idea that a quick programme to increase employment skills or change behaviour would undo the lifetime of experience that had led a prisoner into offending. Later in his speech, he seemed to say that offenders had to decide for themselves whether to change their lives, and if they did, a good prison could help them with that change: but it was a mistake to think it was something ‘we’ could do to ‘them’.
Is he right?
He is right about the size of the effect. The programme he persuaded Jack Straw to fund in the late ‘90s, in harmony with New Labour’s mantra ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’, spent (or as we say nowadays, ‘invested’) around £250-300m year to fund programmes, which were based on the best scientific evidence, either to increase employment skills (because joblessness is linked to offending) or to modify behaviour, based mainly on cognitive behavioural psychology principles. In return, he committed to cutting the rate of reoffending by 13.4 % over a decade (1).
I have assessed the results of this programme here. I estimated (and it is extraordinary that no-one else has tried to do these sums!), that the programme ‘avoided’ about 80, 000 crimes a year at a cost of about £3-4000 per crime avoided. Worth it? You decide. I’d just point out that that little more than one per cent of all the crimes reported by the British Crime Survey (BCS) and if you crimes not reported to the police, or not counted by the BCS, a lot less than one per cent of all crime. So it’s not nearly enough to make any difference to how safe you are, or how safe you feel. It is also the case that crime fell by about half from 1995 to to 2010, for reasons we can only speculate about, but which have nothing to do with the work of the prison or probation services.
What is very striking from the data is that it is very short prison sentences that are so spectacularly useless at cutting reoffending (2). There are several reasons for this. They disrupt prisoners lives sufficiently to weaken those factors that help keep them from offending – family ties, employment – without giving time for any useful work to be done in prison on addiction, attitudes to offending behaviour and so on. And short term prisoners have never had proper probation supervision and support on release, unlike longer term prisoners - Grayling’s botched privatisation was supposed to provide this but the reality is shown in an audit report that revealed that the contract required CRCs merely to provide a piece of paper, so that’s what in many cases was produced – a piece of paper with no evidence of any real planning for release, see here. The failure to reduce the high rate of reconviction for short term prisoners is as much a failure of the probation as of the prison system.
No surprise, then, that the indications are that for offences at the margins of imprisonment, community sentences achieve a better effect. That is why all parties have favoured limiting use of very short sentences – though the Tories seem to have resiled from that under Johnson. But longer prisons sentences – for which community sentences are not an alternative - do appear to cut reoffending.
Over time, I like Martin have become more sceptical about the ability of the correctional services to cut reoffending rates, or for that matter, the ability of the entire criminal justice system to have much effect on crime rates. In my case, it is largely because I’ve become aware that reoffending rates vary significantly for reasons that plainly have nothing to do with prevention of reoffending programmes, see here. We became aware of this even as we tracked the impact of the 2000 programme (1). And it’s become even more starkly clear recently, here. For example, reconviction rates for prisoners have fallen steadily in the 2010s, precisely as the prison system descended into violent chaos. Reconviction rates for community orders fell just as the disastrous Grayling privatisation of probation brought the service to its knees, such that the privatisation had to be abandoned. And in the same period, reconviction rates fell for fines, suspended sentences and cautions - sentences that don’t involve the correctional services at all. Plainly, movements in reconviction rates are not a measure of the performance of the correctional services. It is foolishness to pretend otherwise.
Let’s take a moment over the counter-argument that if prisons were all decent, modern places with adequate facilities, if they were not overcrowded, if they were all fully staffed, if staff were all properly trained, if there was support in the community for discharged prisoners – so that each prisoner had accommodation on the first night, an offer of employment, medical help, and so on – then prisons could reduce reconviction rates by a bigger margin. The evidence suggests that is so, though it also suggests that the impact would still be marginal, the just the reasons Martin advances: it would not, could not, never will, change the future behaviour of most prisoners. And that’s too many ifs. It presupposes a political will to tone down excessive, indeed, irrational use of imprisonment, which is simply not there, because the public won’t stand for it. And it presupposes billions to become available at a time when the NHS, social care, housing are all in desperate straits and have higher priority, and at a time where we are voluntarily about to make ourselves a lot poorer (Brexit, then the breakup of the UK). And it also presupposes willingness to give ex-prisoners preferential access to housing and other services. Ain’t going to happen. It’s a dream of another world than this.
So I think Martin is right.
What are the consequences for prisons?
If that is accepted, what are the consequences? An obvious risk, in terms of how we run prisons, is a punitive, even nihilistic backlash. To a degree that we perhaps underestimate, the belief in rehabilitation, explicitly Christian in its origins, has been an extraordinarily persistent feature of our prison system, even when conditions have been at their most appalling – indeed, one could argue that it is precisely that core belief which has made us recognise and condemn failure when we see it. It is not so in many American jurisdictions, for example, where punishment pure and simple is seen as the aim. Small wonder that prison reformers were appalled by Martin's speech.
The worry therefore must be that if politicians (and media) accepted Martin’s thesis, they would say: well, if rehabilitation is a pipedream, we don’t need to bother with all those expensive programmes, we don’t need to bother about overcrowding, we don't need to bother too much about being nice to prisoners, we don’t even need to bother so much about rats in cells, because we aren’t ever going to make better people out of prisoners: we just want to punish them. Indeed, in the minds of readers of The Express and Mail, the worse the conditions, the more brutal the treatment, the better. Imprisonment thus becomes mere warehousing.
Of course, all the evidence, all the logic of self-interest – never mind that of mere humanity – is against that tendency. We know some programmes do work, for some prisoners. We know that brutalisation achieves nothing, but on the contrary, does damage. We know that prisons where prisoners are afraid and feel unsafe cannot reduce reoffending, but those where they do feel safe, can, and do. We know that it is not the tax payers interest (to put it in terms the Daily Mail readers might understand) to have addicted and mentally ill prisoners return to the community with addictions undiminished and illness untreated. And surely, when we punish, we should do so in a style that reflects our values – not those of offenders. And so on.
So, as Martin himself argues, the logic is still that jails must be decent and humane places, where the needs of prisoners are met. But would that still convince, in a world where no one thought it was the job of prisons to prevent reoffending, or that they could conceivably do so? In a world where Liberal Toryism has been hacked to death and the New Right is gleefully breaking all the taboos? Where the likes of Dominic Cummings dictate policy?
And on penal policy?
What of the impact on penal policy? Well, one might say of penal policy, as Gandhi replied when he asked what he thought of Western civilisation – that it would be a good idea. For what penal policy is there? There are guidelines, set down by the Court of Appeal and Sentencing Council. Here’s the one on burglary. It tells you what is an aggravating and what a mitigating factor and so on. But it hardly amounts to a penal policy – how should we use different sentences in different ways, and what we are trying to achieve with them - and whetehr we are achieving it. (Mind you, the last attempt at a general framework for sentencing, a generation ago, didn't work too well.)
And I've never been convinced that general philsophical principles, such as Martin mentions, are much help with the practical busness of sentencing. Martin says that the justification for imprisonment, if rehabilitation falls, must be either deterrence or retribution. Neither help much. There’s very little evidence on the effectiveness of deterrence in sentencing, either general deterrence (a warning to potential offenders) or individual deterrence (dissuade a prisoner from reoffending). Common sense suggests that if there were no threat of prison for a given crime, more would be committed. But that a marginal increase in prison sentence lengths is unlikely to have much effect: it is the risk of being caught that matters much more to offenders than the average sentence, and most offenders simply do not weigh out risk v. reward in the prudent, informed way that deterrence theory would suppose. (Though it may work for prudent, informed people with something to lose, like drivers who don’t fasten seat belts or text while driving.)
Unlike criminologists, I am entirely comfortable with the aim of retribution, or punishment: it seems to me that’s the basic reason we have criminal justice system at all, the feeling that people who do bad things should be punished officially, on behalf of us all, after a fair process of judgement. The trouble is, that it’s as long as a piece of string. For the Express and Mail readers, sentences can never be long enough, and a promise to lengthen them will always get their juices going. That’s why politicians and the media harp on about it (and not just Tories: remember IPP?). Though perhaps even Express and Mail readers might baulk at a 36-year prison term for stealing $50. Interestingly, research suggests that the public or very ill-informed about actual sentencing practice, also that they often become less punitive once the background and facts of a particular case are given to them. But that’s exactly the information they never get.
Martin did not mention incapacitation, which what Michael Howard meant when as Home Secretary he told a gleeful Tory Conference in 1993 that ‘prison works’, thus bringing the brief downturn in the prison population post Woolf to an end (3). When in prison, an offender can’t commit crimes other than against other prisoners or prison staff, and seemingly those crimes don’t count. However, it is extremely diffiuclt to make any estmiate of ths effect on crime - one is guessing at what rate offenders would have offended had they not been in prison, how that rate would change as they age, and to what extent others otuside will merely fill the gap as it were. For that reason most estimates simply look at trends in prison popualtion v trends in crime. Most analyses conclude that impact of locking up more offenders, or the same offenders for longer, on crime overall is small, and may have much bigger costs than benefits. I looked at this issue here. (See also a summary of American research here ). For sure, as a way of cutting crime, incapcitation is a terribly bad a deal for tax payers.
Looking at all this, I don’t have any neat conclusion to offer on Martin’ s argument. I think he’s right, on the facts, but I also think it possibly opens the way for an impoverishment brutalisation of policy and prison practice in the hands of the New Tories, even though he’s a million miles from advocating that. The one conclusion one should draw is a policy of parsimony - since prison costs so much, if the evidence of its efficacy is patchy, use as little of it as you feel you must. But prison building, like war, is one thing Governments always seem to find money for.
All in all, perhaps its just as well that everyone seems intent on ignoring him.
And what about probation?
Probation, we all know, is quite wonderful. It is, surely, the jewel in the crown on the criminal justice system (or was before the botched privatisation), uniquely able to turn criminals into honest citizens merely by demnstrating the sterling moral qualities of its staff (it's called 'pro social modelling'). Or is it? Well, just apply to probation the very same test Martin applied to prison. A huge amount was invested by New Labour in ‘what works’ programmes in community sentences, as well as in prisons. And with a similar lack of result. And then reconviction rates for community orders started to fall - just as Grayling broke the probation service apart. Draw your own conclusions…..
1. VISTA Vol 11 No 1 2007 ‘Is ‘what works’ working?’, Julian Le Vay. Note that is a percentage fall in the reconviction rate, so that if the rate was 50% to start with, the targets was 43.3% - not 36.6%.
2. I commend this analysis of the case for restricting use of short prisons sentences, by Helen Mills of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies
3. A Tory achievement. New Labour then drove the population up at a record rate.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
Click below to receive regular updates