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Police Focus on Individual Offenders Can Cut Crime

Immediate and clear sanctions can stop offending and reduce criminal justice costs

While police forces and the prison system grapple with the swingeing cuts inflicted by the Coalition Government, a new Civitas report reveals that policing strategies that target individual offenders could help protect the public. Offender-Desistance Policing and the Sword of Damocles, by two Cambridge University criminologists, Lawrence W. Sherman and Peter W. Neyroud, argues that letting the police deal with low-risk offenders quickly with a structured supervision plan linked to a deferred prosecution could reduce offending and allow police and the other agencies to focus more on preventing serious crime.

Tough love

The Coalition Government is desperately seeking less expensive alternatives to prison that will protect the public and appropriately punish offenders. Sherman and Neyroud offer a solution in the form of offender-desistance policing (ODP). They show that immediate and certain consequences can warn individual offenders off further criminal acts more effectively than the less certain prospect of tougher sanctions in the distant future when a case comes to court. More consistent police supervision of known offenders can also help focus on the underlying personal problems that have made committing crime an attractive option for offenders.

Sherman and Neyroud’s approach combines a rapid and robust police response to crime, required to protect the public, with flexible offender-focused rehabilitation strategies that could help shift even habitual offenders towards becoming law-abiding citizens.

Swift and certain – but not too long

Sherman and Neyroud draw on evidence from Hawaii’s Opportunity and Probation and Enforcement (HOPE) programme to show that small but certain penalties encourage offenders to desist from crime. The judge-run scheme was targeted at drug addicted probationers, who had to contact their probation officers every day. Half were selected for a random (rather than scheduled and predictable) drug test. Failing these tests led to immediate and gradually escalating penalties:

…penalties start at a very low level of severity and escalate only gradually. The first drug test failure, for example, earns one night in jail… offenders who have jobs they might lose if they are jailed immediately [have] the option of serving the short sentence on the next weekend or next day off from work. A second drug test failure might earn two nights in jail, a third failure three nights, and so on. (p. 15)

Offenders on the scheme were measured against a randomised control group that had drug tests administered but without the same penalty structure. Offenders assigned to HOPE compared to the control group:

  • Had half as many arrests for new crimes
  • Spent 50 per cent fewer days in prison
  • Generated half the costs of administering justice (p. 15)

The Sword of Damocles

The report proposes adapting this programme in a pilot for England and Wales. The scheme would allow arrested individuals an alternative to facing prosecution. They would agree to be assigned to police offender-managers – a ‘Damocles Squad’ – named after the legendary sword that hangs by a thread, threatening to impale a miscreant below it if he repeats his offence.

This special team would ‘nudge’ offenders to keep straight and comply with a contract to keep them out of future trouble, but with the big stick of instant prosecution if they fail. Sherman and Neyroud set out a number of police strategies and voluntary rehabilitation services to be tested in the pilot to encourage desistance from crime, including:

  • Formal warnings to ensure offenders know the consequences of failing to follow the rules
  • Unannounced door-knocking to check on offenders and their associates
  • Curfews
  • Voluntary Drug treatment
  • Psychotherapeutic treatment for past trauma
  • Restorative justice whereby offenders are expected to apologise to their victims
  • Offender relocation to break up bad peer groups (pp. 34-37)

Targeting likely re-offenders

The report proposes allocating police supervision resources, as well as decisions to prosecute through court action, using a crime-harm forecasting statistical model. This has proved more effective at predicting the likelihood and severity of individual re-offending than other methods of estimating the danger an arrestee poses to the public. Offenders would be dealt with according to the harm they are predicted to pose to the public:

  • Dangerous and violent offenders would be prosecuted and targeted for long prison sentences.
  • Arrestees with a low probability of re-offending could avoid court proceedings and could be permitted less intensive supervision.
  • Less dangerous individuals but probable re-offenders would be supervised with extra care. (pp. 30-32)

This would allow police to focus their attention on a limited number of individual offenders who are responsible for a high proportion of criminal harm in their communities. They are the individuals predicted to re-offend, but with the potential to desist from crime if given the right level of supervision and access to rehabilitation services.

Sherman and Neyroud conclude that their evidence-based scheme should be of particular interest to the first wave of elected police commissioners. They explain:

[This programme] relies on criminological theory and evidence to design the tactics that have the most promise for Offender-Desistance Policing. (p. 39)

For more information contact:

Civitas 020 7799 6677

Notes for Editors

i. Lawrence W. Sherman is the Wolfson Professor of Criminology and Director-elect of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University. Formerly President of both the American and the International Societies of Criminology, he is the founder of the Academy of Experimental Criminology and Director of the Cambridge Police Executive Programme.

ii. Peter W. Neyroud CBE QPM, is a Visiting Professor at Chester University and PhD student at Cambridge University. He is a former Chief Executive Officer for the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), and former Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police. He was also a member of the Sentencing Guidelines Council and independent reviewer at the Parole Board.

iii. Offender-Desistance Policing and the Sword of Damocles (RRP: £4.00) is available from the Civitas shop and by calling 020 7799 6677..

iv. 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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