Crime has risen up the public agenda and, according to polling, is now the third most important priority facing the country behind the NHS and Brexit.
The central challenge within crime and policing is the growing gap between rising demand and falling productivity. The national charge rate has halved over the last five years – currently at 7.4 per cent.[_]
More resources are required. However, the public debate is dominated by inputs: all three of the major parties are pledging to increase officer numbers – but there is very little detail as to how those additional officers would be used to drive up performance.
Similarly, on justice, the parties are focused on inputs. Simply pushing up prison sentences and increasing the numbers of prison officers will not do anything to address the growing violence and drug abuse in our prisons.
Getting crime back under control will require a credible plan: to equip officers with the powers and technology they need to catch criminals; to ensure that prison and probation officers have the right skills to deal with a more violent and prolific cohort of offenders; and to incentivise schools and youth offending teams to intervene early and prevent crime.
Crime barely featured in either of the last two general election campaigns, yet is a bigger factor in the 2019 campaign. The IPSOS MORI Issues Index shows that ‘crime, order and anti-social behaviour’ have in the space of five years risen from the 12th most important concern facing the country to the third, with 24% of respondents listing it amongst the most important issues facing the country.
The growth in public concern about crime is a reflection of real underlying trends: in particular, the increase in ‘high-harm’ offences, such as knife crime, robbery and homicide, linked to changes in drugs markets. It also reflects a frustration with several years of drift at the top of government, with crime having been relegated below other domestic priorities (a trend exacerbated by Brexit). To the extent that central government has played a role, it has been to reduce the funding available for police and prisons, while restricting the use of police powers, such as stop and search. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system is creaking, with record delays in the courts, a probation service that has ceased to function and record levels of violence within overcrowded prisons.
As a result, the public have a (not unjustified) sense that the government has lost control on crime. This undermines confidence in the state. It is also an affront to social justice: crime and the fear of crime disproportionately affects those in the most disadvantaged areas.
The debate on law and order is dominated by inputs, rather than outcomes. All three parties headline on the idea of investing in police numbers, following a period of prolonged funding cuts since 2010. Of the three parties, the Conservative position is clearest, committing to an additional 20,000 officers and longer sentences for violent offenders. This is part of a strategy by the current Prime Minister to restore the Conservatives’ traditional brand as the party of law and order, following several years in which they have been associated with a weakening of police resources and powers. With crime rising up the public consciousness, this may well be fruitful territory for the Conservatives, though it is not without risk. The fact they are pledging to restore the exact same number of police officers (20,000) that have been lost since 2010 is an acknowledgement that such deep cuts were a mistake.
Similarly on justice, there is a stark difference between the tone and emphasis of the different manifestos, with the Conservatives signalling a return to traditional ‘tough’ sentencing reform (with longer sentences for violent offenders), and Labour and the Lib Dems emphasising the benefits of ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘treatment’. As with policing, the debate is dominated by inputs, with the parties committing to increase resources for overstretched prisons (whose workforce has been cut by a third since 2010), rather than outcomes, such as the rate of violence and/ or reoffending.
Politicians of all stripes have preferred to focus on police numbers since they believe it sends a signal about parties’ seriousness on crime and policing. However, for these additional resources to be effective, the police need to be productive; if not, the presence of more officers will do little to deter criminals or bring them to justice.
What has been ignored by the three parties’ manifestos is that since 2010, the proportion of offences resulting in a positive outcome[_] has fallen to record lows, even as recorded crime has increased. In the year ending June 2019, only 11.2% of offences resulted in a positive outcome (with 7.4% charged) down from 25.2% year ending March 2015 (when 15.5% were charged).[_] Moreover, the gap between the number of individuals being dealt with formally by the criminal justice system and total recorded crime is at its highest point since 1970. Some of this may be the result of the growing complexity of investigating crime (including the length of time required to download digital evidence) – nonetheless, the extent of the drop warrants greater political focus than has hitherto been the case. In short, the efficacy of policing – not just the number of police officers – has been hit hard in recent years and without a compelling reform plan to resolve that, simply boosting the number of officers will not fix the problem.
Average number of positive outcomes and average number of crimes per frontline line staff member
It is notable that neither Labour, nor the Lib Dems appear to be comfortable with boosting enforcement activity (stop and search, use of civil injunctions) – indeed, if anything, their policy announcements suggest the opposite: that in government, they would seek to curtail the use of such powers, rather than expand them. There are, of course, legitimate concerns about the disproportionate impact of stop and search on particular BAME communities, but these can be addressed through the use of technology (such as body worn videos) and by ensuring sufficient oversight and scrutiny, for example, through the use of community review panels. Ultimately, for additional resources to be effective, they must be accompanied by genuine powers of enforcement to tackle criminality at all levels: if not, the presence of more officers will do little to deter criminality.
On justice, there is a significant divergence between the Conservatives and the other two parties. Labour and the Lib Dems are pledging to increase a presumption against short custodial sentences: a sensible and moderate change, given the evidence that such sentences appear to achieve little beyond driving up the likelihood of people reoffending once they leave the prison gate. Both parties also recognise that prisons have been drastically understaffed, promising to recruit more prison officer numbers (though they say little about what they will do to equip them with the tools required to deal with rising violence and drug abuse within prisons.)
The most radical policy is arguably the Lib Dems ‘promise to decriminalise possession of drugs, diverting people into treatment. However, there are reasons to be sceptical about whether this would offer a panacea to drug-related harms. For example, decriminalising possession would not necessarily eradicate the illicit market for drugs and might inadvertently drive up health-harms. Similarly, there is little evidence that decriminalisation would make a significant dent in our prison population. Analysis of MoJ sentencing data shows that out of all those committed to immediate custody in 2018, only 1.17 per cent had been found guilty of drug possession offences.[_]
The Conservatives’ manifesto is the most populist of the three on justice, with signature pledges to lengthen sentences for violent offenders and create a further 10,000 prison places. Little detail is provided as to what (if any) action would be taken to reduce the strain in our prisons (with self-harm and assaults at a record high) or to turnaround the fortunes of a probation service that has repeatedly been described by inspectors, the NAO and the Justice Committee as no longer fit for purpose and increasingly putting the public at risk. With the cohort of offenders within the CJS having become significantly more prolific over the last decade, the failure to set out a credible plan to reduce reoffending is not an adequate policy response.
THE BIG CHALLENGES BEING MISSED
Police productivity: There is an absence of any meaningful policy on police productivity, use of technology and/ or plans to improve police charge rates and close the widening justice gap.
Early intervention: the lack of a credible prevention agenda is a major gap in the parties’ offerings to the voters.
Reoffending: none of the parties are offering a plan to reduce the high rate of reoffending, which has remained flat for well over a decade
In recent years communities have been let down by inattention at the highest levels of a government (partly owing to the chaos of Brexit) that has lost direction on crime. With violence rising since 2014, it is little wonder that public anxiety has grown. But rising crime is not inevitable.
Additional resources – whether in the form of more police officers or new prison places - are a must: but on its own that won’t be sufficient. Getting a grip of crime will require much greater focus and coordination from the centre, to improve police productivity and equip officers with the powers and technology they need to catch criminals; to ensure that prison and probation officers have the right skills to deal with a more violent and prolific cohort of offenders. Moreover, early intervention will only become a reality when local authorities, schools, youth offending teams and drug misuse teams are incentivised to play their part.