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Coalition’s Anti-Prison Policies Ignore MOJ Data on Effectiveness of Long Sentences

Coalition’s anti-prison policies ignore MOJ data on effectiveness of long sentences

Analysis of FOI data shows that longer prison sentences reduce fraud and burglary

Tough prison sentences contribute to reducing property crime, according to a new Civitas report. Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, a Birmingham University economist, shows that prison is effective at reducing crime, especially when targeted at serious and repeat offenders. The report, Acquisitive Crime, shows that for some crime types, longer custodial sentences lead to consistent reductions in crime.

Longer sentences most effective for burglaries and frauds

Acquisitive Crime: Imprisonment, Detection and Social Factors draws on new research by Dr. Bandyopadhyay, and his colleagues Samrat Bhattacharya, Marianna Koli and Rudra Sensarma. They measure the impact of several factors determining crime rates in 43 Police Force Areas in England and Wales between 1993 and 2008. They use new local sentencing data released by the Ministry of Justice following a Freedom of Information request.

The report estimates that a one-month increase of the average sentence length for each offence type in a typical year would prevent, in the following year (p.9):

  • 4,800 recorded burglaries
  • 4,700 recorded frauds

The report also estimates the effect of a radical change in the current policy of early release at the half-way stage. If offenders were made to serve two-thirds of their sentence in custody by default rather than the current half, England and Wales would see in the following year (p. 10):

  • 21,000 fewer recorded burglaries
  • 11,000 fewer recorded frauds

Previous Government policy was more effective

The policies of the 1997-2010 Government were based on the known evidence, but the Coalition’s are not. The Labour Governments of Blair and Brown tried to incarcerate as many as possible of the 100,000 most prolific offenders. The prison population was increased substantially and led to a big drop in crime. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke’s preference for community sentences ignores the major fall in crime that took place after 1993, when Michael Howard first introduced the ‘prison works’ policy that was continued by Labour.

The importance of policing

Dr Bandyopadhay also measures the effects of police detection on crime rates. He finds that modest increases in detection produce visible reductions in recorded crime for all offence types. A one percentage point increase in the national average detection rate would prevent an estimated (p.8):

  • 26,000 recorded burglaries
  • 85,000 recorded thefts
  • 2,500 recorded robberies
  • 1,800 recorded frauds

This consistent effect suggests that policing remains a vital line of defence in crime prevention:

With respect to policing, the evidence is unequivocal: more detection is associated with substantial reductions in crime. It plays a sustained role in preventing crime. (p.11)

The targeted use of prison sentences can provide important support for the police, by incapacitating the individuals who are responsible for much of the crime in their local areas.

The last Labour Government recognised the importance of policing and increased the number of police officers. The Coalition is reducing the number of police while pretending that greater efficiency can make up for the loss. Improving efficiency should always be the aim of any well-run force. It is not a substitute for having sufficient officers to deal with the level of crime being suffered.

Mixed effect for unemployment

The analysis also includes a number of socio-economic variables. The report shows that higher unemployment is associated with higher burglary rates. Fraud, however, is associated with lower unemployment, possibly because a significant amount of fraud takes place in the workplace. This suggests that a change in economic circumstances does not always reduce criminal propensity itself, but can change the kinds of crimes being committed.

While acknowledging the role that social factors have on crime, the report’s approach challenges the assumption that offenders’ behaviour is purely determined by social circumstances. Instead, potential criminals often respond intelligently to an increased likelihood of getting caught and punished, making them less likely to commit crime. Social and economic context is important but better circumstances are not always the key to lower crimes. Higher incomes and greater employment can present more opportunities for some kinds of criminal behaviour, as well as reducing others. Crime always involves a moral choice.

For more information contact:

Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay on 0121 414 6658 (office),s.bandyopadhyay@bham.ac.uk(email)

Nick Cowen (Civitas crime researcher) on 020 7799 6677

Civitas 020 7799 6677

Notes for Editors

i. Dr. Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay is Lecturer in Economics at the University of Birmingham and an internationally recognised scholar in political economy.

ii. Acquisitive Crime: Imprisonment, Detection and Social Factors is available below. The report includes research by Bandyopadhyay, Samrat Bhattacharya, Marianna Koli and Rudra Sensarma. Their key discussion paper, Acquisitive Crime, Sentencing and Detection: An Analysis of England and Wales, is available here.

iii. Civitas is an independent social policy think tank. It has no links to any political party and its research programme receives no state funding.


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